2012 Results: Problems for the GOP in the Military Bastions?

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Over the past few decades the Republican Party has been a kind of three-legged stool, supported by three key elements – an abiding belief in cutting government and taxes, a strong advocacy of social conservative issues and a solid commitment to a strong national defense. Those issues helped build a winning coalition that included tax-cut favoring suburbanites, Christian conservatives and defense hawks.

But the last few elections suggest some of those legs may be getting a little rickety – particularly the one built on national defense.

In Patchwork Nation, the shift has been particularly noticeable in the counties we call Military Bastions.  Those counties tend to be located near military bases and have large numbers of soldiers, veterans and military contractors. And in the last two elections now – elections that might be considered largely post-Iraq War – the GOP has seen its advantage in the Bastions shrink from double digits to low single-digit margins.

Looking closely at those elections from 2000 to 2012 – three of which were fairly close – there seems to be a shift in the voting habits of those counties and it may portend challenges to the GOP in those places and on the defense issue in general in the future.

The Military Bastions are in purple on the map below.

The Movement

George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 and 2004 by narrow margins, but in both cases he won big in the Military Bastions – by 10 percentage point and 13 percentage points respectively. But in 2008 and 2012, things narrowed considerably. Barack Obama did not win the Bastions in either election, but lost those counties by 3 points and 4 points respectively. The chart below lays out the differences.

Year

 Democratic Candidate

Republican Candidate

GOP Margin

2000

44% (Gore)

54%  (Bush)

10 points

2004

43% (Kerry)

56%  (Bush)

13 points

2008

48% (Obama)

51% (McCain)

3 points

2012

47% (Obama)

51% (Romney)

4 points

Take a look at that list. It’s hard to argue that the shift in the vote was driven by the candidates’ military experience. The Democrats had the candidate with the better military resume in 2004 with Sen. John Kerry and they lost handily. The Republicans had the better resume candidate in 2008 with Sen. John McCain and won by only three points.

It’s also hard to argue the changes were driven by the ideology of the candidates. Mr. Bush ran as a moderate in 2000. And conservatives largely perceived Mr. Obama as a liberal in 2008 and 2012.

So what’s changed since 2004? A few things and some of them have to do with key defense issues that exist around these places in very real ways. National defense is not the stuff of theoretical think tank chatter in Bastions, it is about on-the-streets reality.

First, after 2004 many people’s views on the war in Iraq soured. The decision to use the military there was increasingly seen as a mistake. That was felt especially hard in the Military Bastions where there also questions and pain.

Second, a corollary, these communities were exhausted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their contributions were very concrete, made in husbands and wives, friends and relatives and in economic growth (as we have noted in more detailed analysis).

Third, the shrinking budgets in Washington are felt in a number of ways in these counties. Defense expenditures are important – soldiers and weapons systems – but government benefits like payments to veterans, social security and Medicare matter too. Those benefits are something we heard a lot about on a trip through the Hampton Roads area of Virginia just before the election.

And, of course, there is the changing demographic face of these places themselves.

Demographic Shifts

One of the country’s biggest trends over the last decade – the spread of immigrant groups around the country into places further outside of big metro areas – has played a role in the Military Bastions as well.

The latest figures from the Census show that the Bastions are 17% Hispanic overall. The only Patchwork Nation community types with more are the heavily Hispanic Immigration Nation counties (46%) and the big city Industrial Metropolises (24%). (You can explore those and other community demographic numbers in the new Patchwork Nation iPad app.)

And when we examine the vote in some specific communities there is reason to believe that increasing Hispanic population is at least driving some of the change in the Military Bastions.

Consider Virginia Beach, a part of the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. It was still Republican in its 2012 presidential vote, but not as much as it has been. In 2000, the county and 4% Hispanic and gave Republican George W. Bush 55.8% of its vote. In 2012, the county is 7% Hispanic and it gave Republican Nominee Mitt Romney 50.49% of its vote. That’s growth of 3 percentage points in the Hispanic population and a decline of more than 5 percentage points in the GOP tally.

Or look at El Paso County, Colorado, home of the Air Force Academy. In 2000, it was 11% Hispanic and it gave Mr. Bush 64% of its vote. In 2012 it is about 15% Hispanic and it gave Mr. Romney 59% of its vote. The Hispanic population grew by four points and the Republican margin fell by 5 points.

But in other places where the demographics didn’t move as much, the trend was better for the GOP. For example, in Christian County, Kentucky, just outside of Fort Campbell, a small increase in the Hispanic population between 2000 and 2012 was offset by a decline in the African American population – and Mr. Romney did slightly better than Mr. Bush. In 2000, Christian County was 24% African American and 4.8% Hispanic and Mr. Bush captured 60.69% of the vote. In 2012 it was 21% African American and 6.4% Hispanic and Mr. Romney won 61.38% of the votes cast.

That’s not to say that changes in the ethnic makeup of the Bastions are completely responsible for political moves in those places, they’re not. But they are a sign that those communities are subject to the same demographic influences. The entire country is diversifying.

Questions in the Future

To be clear the results of the past few elections do not necessarily represent a long-term or permanent change.

The demographic changes that seem so clearly to be pointing in one direction today could shift in time. Historically speaking, ethnic groups change as they become more deeply ingrained in American culture.

And issues move. Larger forces – from international incidents to budget cuts – can have a profound impact on how people see the two major parties strengths and weaknesses. It could be the battle over the fiscal cliff and the possible military cuts entailed in sequestration, could alter the political landscape on defense issues.

But the country’s demographic diversification and the challenges the GOP has faced on defense issues recently, suggest that in the short-term the Military Bastions are becoming less “safe” for Republican candidates.