In recent elections, they have been losing votes from white college graduates, often in the suburbs, while gaining votes from whites without college degrees. Should Republicans go further down the road of working-class populism, perhaps trying to expand its appeal beyond white voters? Or should they try to reverse their losses among suburban moderates?
Eric Cantor, a Republican and former House majority leader, puts his emphasis on winning back the college-educated voters, especially women, who have recently defected. He recommends that his party push to make paid maternity leave more available and child care more affordable to appeal to these voters.
The conservative political analysts Henry Olsen and Reihan Salam, however, argue that Republicans would be better off trying to build on their gains among working-class voters, especially those who went from supporting Barack Obama in 2012 to supporting Donald Trump in 2016, via policies such as wage subsidies and immigration control. These voters have not all shifted to the GOP in down-ballot races. Whether they will stay Republican in 2020, or when Trump is no longer on the ballot, is an open question.
Olsen and Salam both say, however, that the party would ideally win over more voters of both types. It's that point I'll emphasize here: Republicans should not think of this strategic choice as a stark one.
It may, for one thing, be possible to promote policies that make Republicans more appealing to both groups. Cantor pitches his ideas for helping parents as a way to regain the support of suburban moderates. But paid leave may be even more appealing to working-class voters.
A Republican pitch to the working class that addresses this kind of economic concern might also allow the party to pull back a little from the we're-real-Americans-and-you're-not cultural messaging that alienates many college-educated voters.
Parties that are on the upswing typically make gains that are diffused, albeit unevenly, among many demographic groups. After Mitt Romney lost the presidential election in 2012, many Republicans concluded that to win the next time they would have to do markedly better among Hispanics, getting 40 percent of their votes. Others wondered whether Republicans could win just by boosting their share of the white vote.
Republicans didn't come close to getting 40 percent of Hispanics in 2016. But they slightly improved their percentage of the two-party vote among Hispanics - and among whites, Asians and African-Americans. Those gains, and their geographic distribution, were enough to deliver them the White House.
If Republicans do better in 2020 than they did this fall, it will probably be because they improve their performance a bit among both Romney-Clinton and Obama-Trump voters (although if I had to bet, I would expect a bit more improvement in the second group). If Republicans don't improve on both fronts, on the other hand, they are unlikely to win a governing majority.
A coalition that includes the suburban defectors, the new populists and traditional conservatives would require constant tending by Republican leaders in the best of circumstances. Whether the party's current leadership is suited to building and maintaining it is also, at best, an open question.
Which brings us to another reason Republicans should not put too much of their mental energy into figuring out whether to target voters with or without college degrees. Whatever individual Republicans want, the party's strategy over at least the next two years will largely consist of whatever the president chooses to do and say - and that series of choices is going to be guided more by who he is and what he wants than by any grand theory of the electorate