Obama's pollster: Republicans have a tolerance problem

Obama's campaign pollster, Joel Benenson, says the Republican challenge goes beyond the Latino vote, extending to anyone who isn't white and thinks differently from party orthodoxy.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
This October file photo shows the audience, who were mostly women, listen behind President Obama as he speaks about the choice facing women in the election during a campaign event at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Much has been made of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s catastrophic performance last month among Latino voters – just 27 percent to President Obama’s 71 percent.

Now at 10 percent of the American electorate, Latinos are the nation’s fastest-growing minority. Suddenly, Republicans are suing for peace on comprehensive immigration reform, an issue they have long resisted out of fear it could lead to “amnesty” for those in the country illegally.

But to Joel Benenson, Mr. Obama’s campaign pollster, the GOP’s problem is bigger than Latinos and immigration.

“The Republican Party has a tolerance problem,” Mr. Benenson told reporters Wednesday at a session hosted by Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “I think when you define people who look differently than you as illegal aliens, and use that term over and over again, and talk about self-deporting them, that’s a tolerance issue.”

The “looking different” issue, Benenson adds, also helps explain why Asian-Americans voted for Mr. Obama over Mr. Romney by an even wider margin than Latinos, 76 percent to 23 percent. He suggests that the Obama campaign’s message on investment – in education, in building a future through hard work –also won Asian-American votes.

But the tolerance issue, he says, goes beyond race and ethnicity – it goes to issues.

“When you call people who believe in global warming ‘job-killers,’ you have a tolerance problem,” Benenson says.

“When you want to deny gay people, who want to make a lifetime commitment to each other, just as their parents did, because they want to spend a life together, and you want to deny them that life aspiration, you have a tolerance problem,” he says.

In addition, Benenson frames Republican attacks on contraception and Planned Parenthood as intolerance toward women.

A piecemeal approach to fixing the party’s demographic challenges won’t work, he suggests.

"If they think they can solve all their problems by picking off any one of those groups and saying, ‘Oh, we’ll fix our problem here or there,’ this goes to whether you have core beliefs that are in line and in touch with the vast majority of Americans,” the pollster says.

For most of the campaign, Obama led Romney by 10 percentage points on the question of whether his views and policies were in line with mainstream Americans. Only in the period immediately after the first Obama-Romney debate did the Republican nominee come close to even on that question.

The Republicans have embarked on a period of soul-searching, including a party-led task force that is reviewing the results of the 2012 election and brainstorming a path forward on how to widen the party’s appeal. And there’s no time to lose. Public acceptance of gay marriage, for example, is growing rapidly, as older Americans who are most resistant to the idea die off and younger people, who are broadly accepting, reach voting age.

Look at voters under age 40, says Benenson. “How do you redefine yourself now with what is almost half the electorate? They’re hearing a very strident, intolerant point of view on specific issues.... I mean, they have become a party of orthodoxy.”

He also points out that Romney won the white evangelical vote by the same margin as President George W. Bush in 2004 – 57 percentage points. But he lost the remaining three-quarters of the electorate by 23 points, 60 percent to 37 percent. Mr. Bush lost those voters by 13 points.

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