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.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appealed to voters at a rally at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Va., Sept. 8.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Some Republican strategists are already preparing for the worst. The numbers, frankly, are dismal. Nearly 2 of every 3 Latinos favor President Obama to Mitt Romney. Voters in the gay and lesbian community favor Mr. Obama by the same margin. Women favor the president by 51 percent to 41 percent, according to an August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. And African-Americans? One poll suggested that Mr. Romney is being skunked: 94 percent to 0 percent.

Clearly, the GOP has a minority problem. But Republican strategists aren't just worried about November – they're worried about the Novembers after that.

If demographic trends continue to swell the country's minority population, and the GOP continues to struggle to grow its white, Protestant base, the Republican Party risks going the way of the Whigs it replaced in the 1850s. Already, some experts say, minorities are likely to swing this presidential election to Obama. And going forward, the arithmetic (as a certain former centrist president from red state Arkansas recently pronounced) says it all: This year, for the first time, births of nonwhites outnumbered births of whites in America, putting the United States on the road to becoming a majority-minority nation in three decades, the US Census Bureau reported. For the GOP, the rubber is finally hitting the road.

"The GOP cannot continue to be the party of old, white men and succeed on the electoral map, [and in] the White House, going forward," says Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist and chairman of the political-action committee Civic Forum PAC in Washington.

If it wants to remain competitive for power in Congress and the White House, the GOP knows it must make serious inroads with minorities, and soon. That means it must begin to change the policies that have defined – and isolated – it for a generation. Of course, doing that without alienating its base is easier said than done.

But if 2008 was the year that Millennials pushed Obama over the top, 2012 could be the year that minorities do the same. It is a warning shot.

The demographics are compelling. The country's minority population grew by 30 percent during the past decade, according to data from the 2010 Census, while the white population grew just 1 percent. In 1992, the minority vote made up 12 percent of the electorate. This year, it's expected to be 28 percent.

Racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 92 percent of the nation's growth since 2000, with most of that increase (some 56 percent) coming from Hispanics, according to the 2010 Census. Non-Hispanic whites are projected to become a minority of the population in 30 years, according to Pew Research Center projections.

"The tectonic plates of American politics are shifting," writes Ruy Teixeira, a political demographer and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, in a paper prepared for a March 2010 "Future of the Parties" conference. "A powerful concatenation of demographic forces is transforming the American electorate and reshaping both major political parties."

These changes have left "the GOP … on the wrong side of history, demographically speaking," adds Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington.

Despite being a self-professed numbers guy, Romney has not raced to court the minority vote. As the Obama campaign comes out with "Women for Obama," "¡Obama!" and, yes, "Hipsters for Obama" buttons, the Republican Party has instead been buttonholed as not just having a "black problem," or a "Hispanic problem," or a "gay problem." The GOP, says Mr. O'Connell, has a minority problem.

Not that the GOP isn't trying to expand its appeal.

Its national convention in Tampa, Fla., featured a string of speeches by so-called rising stars, including Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Indian-American Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Cuban-American Senate nominee Ted Cruz, Haitian-American mayor and congressional nominee Mia Love, and Mexican-American New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

But the convention floor was notably short on minority delegates – as made obvious by the Democratic convention's technicolored rainbow of an audience a week later. It's a portrait even conservative commentators have poked fun at, as when New York Times columnist David Brooks described the winter Olympics as "the second most Caucasian institution on earth, after the GOP."

And that is at the core of why Romney and the GOP aren't doing more to court minority voters for the November election. In short, say political watchers, they can't.

"They have a substantive problem," says Professor Lichtman. "To the extent they reach out substantively to minorities, they risk losing their base."

Since its founding in the 1850s, the Republican Party has relied on a base of white Protestant voters, says Lichtman. And though that served it well though the 19th and much of the 20th century, when Protestants composed the majority of voters, "That white Protestant majority has since disappeared," he writes in an Aug. 16 Newsweek article. "Fewer than 40 percent of all Americans today are white and Protestant." (Incidentally, this is also the first time in the history of the US that neither major party ticket includes a white Protestant nominee.)

In contrast, the Democratic Party has historically engaged minorities, starting with the New Deal coalition of Roman Catholics, Jews, blacks, Southern whites, lower-income voters, and labor unions, which helped the Democratic Party win seven out of nine presidential races between the 1930s and '60s.

Overwhelmingly, the Republicans – as well as their standard-bearer, Romney – have held fast to the policies that have grown out of that past. As a result, many minority voters from Hispanics to Muslims have felt antagonized by the party – as have women, to a lesser extent. For example:

• Romney has rejected the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for some young illegal immigrants; and at a GOP debate in January, Romney said the solution to illegal immigration was "self-deportation." Meanwhile, Democrats have strongly pushed the DREAM Act, and Obama incorporated many of its features into a directive that allows young immigrants brought here as children to apply for a two-year deportation deferral.

• Efforts by Republican legislators to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, which is the nation's top abortion provider but also provides preventive care to low-income women, have alienated some women voters. Perhaps more damaging have been comments by conservative commentators and lawmakers. Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown law student a "slut" for advocating broader health-insurance coverage of contraception, and Rep. Todd Aiken (R) of Missouri said women's bodies could prevent a pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." Democrats had the law student, Sandra Fluke, speak at their convention.

• Romney has rejected same-sex marriage and civil unions, he has pledged to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court (which defines a marriage as between a man and a woman), and backs a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Obama is the first sitting president to openly endorse same-sex marriage and was instrumental in the repeal of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

• Republicans have also made many Muslim-Americans feel "radioactive." Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota sent letters to government agencies, asking them to investigate Muslim organizations, individuals, and government employees – something Muslims called a "witch hunt." Romney met with retired Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who asserts that "[Islam] should not be protected under the First Amendment," and the GOP platform has an anti-sharia plank that aims to ban foreign law – a threat many view as baseless. The Democrats trumpeted in the party's platform: "We are the party of inclusion and respect differences of perspective and belief."

Romney, in particular, is in a delicate position. Once known as a moderate governor of a very blue state, he has slid to the right to satisfy his base, struggling to maintain his footing as a middle-of-the-road candidate, necessary to remain competitive in a national election.

"The Republican Party is in a funny place these days," adds Mr. Teixeira. "Someone like Romney, who has moderate impulses, is prevented from doing anything serious to moderate his image. Anything you might do on social issues is exactly the kind of thing that would annoy the Republican base."

Lichtman puts it more bluntly: "Can you imagine how the tea party would react if Romney came out in favor of the DREAM Act or endorsed Obamacare?"

But anything else won't be enough, he says. "Just putting minorities out [at conventions] doesn't get you the minority vote," he says. "Minorities who vote are much shrewder than that. They're looking at what you stand for."

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

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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