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Can GOP survive its 'minority problem'?

Polls show that the GOP continues to be 'the party of old, white men' – and that could be decisive in the 2012 presidential election. Demographics suggest that the party must change, and soon.

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This doesn't mean the GOP can't compete in November.

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If the Romney campaign succeeds at framing the election as a referendum on Obama's record and the lagging economy, the race could tip in Romney's favor. And while Romney is struggling to attract the minority vote, he's surging past Obama on the white vote – particularly the working-class white vote, where he beats Obama 59 to percent 37 percent, according to an August USA Today/Gallup poll.

"That's why Romney's hanging on," says O'Connell. "The white working-class, blue-collar voters. That is essentially his base."

What's more, minorities are less likely than whites to be eligible and registered to vote, and to turn out at the polls. But Romney is running on excessively thin margins.

The minority vote "is likely to push President Obama over the top," says O'Connell.

Even if Romney could pull it out, the win would not be a road map for the future.

"We're certainly not winning the percentage of minority votes that we would both want and need to over the next two decades to remain competitive at a national level," says Matt Mackowiak, Republican consultant and president of the Potomac Strategy Group. "We've got to find a way to message them better, to engage them better…."

Some Republicans, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and former President George W. Bush, have been warning the party for years that it needs to do more to reach out to minorities, especially Hispanics. "It's next to impossible to compete if the numbers are against you," says O'Connell. "If the rest of the GOP was singing this tune, they would be much better off."

The question is how to do that. The answer, O'Connell says, will have to be a move away from the party's most conservative wing. "I think you're going to see some distance from social conservatives," he says. "A lot of middle-of-the-road GOPers are saying 'Hey, what's the deal with abortion and same-sex marriage?'"

O'Connell sees the party shifting toward economic issues, perhaps attempting to rebrand itself as an economic party. "That should allow them to be more inclusive," he says, noting that Hispanics, gays, and Asians could all be receptive to messages appealing to small-business owners.

Mr. Mackowiak agrees: "I think the Hispanic vote aligns very well with conservative values. Family values, emphasis on faith, business.... The opportunity is there."

In the future, a changing GOP will have to make strategic concessions to minorities, such as civil unions and comprehensive immigration reform – delicate moves that it must sell to its base in a tactical fashion, invoking states' rights on civil unions and making an economic case for immigration reform, for example.

"The key for the GOP is to balance principle with practicality," says O'Connell. "Whether it's taxes, the Bible, we've got to be principled but practical.... A pivot away from pure ideology. We're for limited government, we get it, but we can't survive if we don't change our tax code."

In so doing, the party may lose some segments of its base, like "Teavangelicals" and others who vote strictly on social issues, but "there's always going to be some trade-offs," says O'Connell.

"It may take them a few elections, but the political logic of the situation will force them to change their tune," says Teixeira. "Parties usually manage to adjust."

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