With word that conservative Assemblyman Travis Allen is considering a run for California Republican Party chairman against a more moderate former Assemblyman David Hadley, the question that has echoed in party confabs for decades rises again. Is the party shrinking because it supports a hard-core conservative agenda or because it supports moderate candidates?

Delegates at state conventions wearing RINO (Republican In Name Only) buttons to disparage a less than conservative candidate are not uncommon. The button-wearers say Republicans have to take bold stances to attract voters to their side. That point is challenged by those who believe voters in the middle of the political spectrum decide elections and a more moderate candidate stands a better chance of winning.

The debate goes on…has gone on for a long time. Meanwhile GOP party registration continues to shrivel, now falling behind those California voters who decline to register with a political party.

Which argument is more credible in explaining the current state of the GOP? Or is something else at work to undermine Republicans in the state?

I asked John Pitney, Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and one-time Acting Director of the Research Department for the Republican National Committee.

“I am not aware of evidence that large numbers of voters have switched their party ID from the GOP,” Pitney responded. “The party’s real problem is not defection but generational replacement. The newer generation of voters is much less Republican than their elders.”

Pitney points to research compiled by the Pew Research Center that tracks trends in party affiliation. The Pew research finds that, “It has been a period during which Americans, especially Millennials, have become more detached from major institutions such as political parties, religion, the military and marriage. At the same time, the racial and ethnic make-up of the country has changed, college attainment has spiked and women have greatly increased their participation in the nation’s workforce.”

These changes along with race and ethnicity are working against Republicans. The Pew Research showed the mountain the GOP must climb to gain acceptance with minority communities. African American (84%), Hispanic (63%) and Asian American (65%) all affiliate or lean Democratic.

“Hardline conservatives have long argued that Hispanics are religious and culturally conservative, so that the best way to win their vote is to steer rightward,” Pitney notes. “Although Hispanics are not uniformly liberal, there is very little evidence that they are strongly conservative, and younger Hispanics lean to the left.”

Pitney added, “To survive and grow, the GOP has to extend its appeal beyond white people.” But he warns, “As long as Donald Trump is the party’s public face, it will not be able to do that.”

Pitney pointed to an August Gallup Poll that shows Trump’s strong disapproval rating is one of the highest in history since presidential approval was measured.

I suspect none of this research will change the internal debate on whether the state GOP would be more successful touting conservative or moderate stances. What the GOP needs is a return to the Ronald Reagan Big Tent philosophy. The former president said, “There is room in our tent for many views; indeed, the divergence of views is one of our strengths.” He suggested building the party around the individual as the centerpiece of party philosophy.

If Republicans don’t discover a way to reverse the decades long trend of losing voters, future battles in the state will focus almost entirely on the Democratic battles between the left and the moderates. (The Democratic Party has its own internal strife with progressives moving the party further left.) Major Republican-oriented donors, including business donors, have been shifting emphasis to have more impact on Democratic contests to the detriment of efforts to rebuild the GOP.