The last several decades, the Republican Party has been shaped profoundly by deepening roots in the American South.
The cultural and political landscape that stretches from the mid-Atlantic to Texas shifted the GOP sharply to the right.
The modern Republican movement has a sensibility that is far more evangelical Christian, more rural, more white and more traditionalist than observers even a decade ago would have predicted.
This political approach has produced strong results, with the GOP controlling the White House and Congress for long periods after 1980.
Indeed, by many measures, this has been a golden age for the conservative movement, with right-of-center leaders and ideas often dominating the national debate.
But it’s no secret that this broadly Southern reinvention of the Republican Party has also produced a countervailing trend, which has put the GOP in considerable peril in presidential contests.
While conservatives have fared well in smaller, rural states — building a vast coalition that includes much of the South, the Midwest and the northern Rockies — Democrats have moved to dominate 3 of the nation’s 5 largest states.
California, Illinois and New York are now safe “blue” territory, providing a combined total of 104 electoral college votes, which can be counted upon without the expenditure of campaign cash, organizational resources or candidate time.
By contrast, Republicans can only count reliably on one mega-state: Texas.
Democrats also have strong political and cultural advantages across the Great Lakes region, with Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin generally leaning into the blue column.
Those states, along with the relatively safe terrain of the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, provide roughly 235 electoral college votes.
Which means that Democrats begin each race with significant advantages in states that provide 87% of the total electoral college votes needed to win.
That represents a huge systemic tilt, which the pundits have begun calling this the Big Blue Wall.
Already, this paradigm means that Republican presidential contenders must run campaigns that are essentially perfect, finding ways to win in battleground states like Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Virginia.
It also means they have to compete successfully in places that are often out of sympathy with the overall demographic and ideological trend of the GOP.
As a consequence, Republican candidates haven’t enjoyed a blow-out win in the electoral since 1988. They have eked by, prevailing by razor thin margins, even against relatively weak opponents.
This is the headwind that Mitt Romney faces. His fate will likely hinge on whether he can capture one or two big bluish state like Michigan or Pennsylvania.
The present-day scenario scary enough for the GOP. But conservatives could face an even greater danger going forward.
There is a very real possibility that Democrats will soon add one or two new chunks to their blue wall.
At present, it appears that Arizona and Florida are following much the same cultural trend that reshaped politics in California, Colorado and New Mexico, with a rapid growth of minorities (primarily Hispanic) and urbanites who tend to vote Democratic.
Over the last decade alone, Florida’s Hispanic population rose from 16% to more than 22%. Over the same period, Arizona added 600,000 Hispanics.
And it’s not just immigrants contributing to this trend. Native born Americans of Hispanic descent are growing in numbers rapidly. (Hispanics already make up 45% of Arizona’s population under the age of 18.)
Unless these patterns reverse soon, America’s changing racial and ethnic landscape could shift American politics much faster than most people grasp.
As early as 2016, Republicans could face a Democratic opponent who begins the presidential race with a literally overwhelming structural advantage.
It is no longer beyond the realm of fanciful to imagine an American presidential contest — even one with two non-incumbents — where the outcome is essentially a foregone conclusion.
If Joe Biden were to enter the contest with a substantial lead in Florida, for example, he would open his campaign with a likely 264 electoral college votes — just six shy of the total needed to win.
Obviously, a lot of variables could change this near-future dilemma for the GOP.
Republicans are making a strong play to rebuild support in the Great Lakes region, for example, a region that is much whiter and more rural than the country as a whole.
If Mitt Romney can eke out a victory in Michigan or Wisconsin, the big blue wall will look far less formidable.
And it may be that conservatives will find a way soon to reach out more effectively to Hispanics, or even African Americans.
But competing successfully in those places and with those voters over the long term would likely mean a significant shift in policies and agenda, one that would sit uneasily with established Republican voters in the southern U.S.