Step 2: Go Outside Your Comfort Zone
When Mitt Romney told a crowd of wealthy donors last year that 47 percent of Americans would never vote for him, he unwittingly legitimized the long-held notion that Republicans view certain segments of the electorate as unworthy of engagement. African-Americans, union members, welfare recipients, the poor—these groups’ unwillingness to vote Republican is predestined by the GOP’s unwillingness to ask for their votes in the first place. The 2012 election, in which Romney, appropriately, won 47 percent of the vote, starkly demonstrates that such an approach is “dinosauric,” as Carney puts it.
The proof is in the pudding. On only a handful of occasions during the 2012 race did the Republican ticket venture into truly hostile, unfamiliar territory. These infrequent forays—Romney’s visit to a predominantly black school in Philadelphia, running mate Paul Ryan’s poverty speech in Cleveland, Romney’s address to the NAACP convention—were defined by two themes. First, they skipped safe, suburban stops targeting wealthy, white voters in favor of unscripted, urban events targeting low-income and minority voters. Second, they were essentially token gestures aimed at assuring the former audience of the party’s compassion rather than convincing the latter audience of its commitment to their cause.
“The Republican Party has always been very good at saying, ‘We include everyone,’ but they’ve never taken time to show it,” says South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Her point invites the fundamental question: Do Republicans ignore these communities because they don’t want to engage them, or because they don’t know how? “It all starts with relationships,” says former Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., an African-American who has long called on his party to reach out to new constituencies. “We think that we can attract people to the party without having relationships with them. But we don’t know them. And they don’t know us. The black community doesn’t know the Republican Party. The Hispanic community doesn’t know the Republican Party.”
Indeed, Republicans have long espoused rhetorical aspirations of “lifting up” the downtrodden and “providing opportunity” for the poor, but when it comes to delivering such promises in person, the GOP has been AWOL. “The messaging doesn’t matter if you’re not reaching out,” Haley says. “It’s not what you say; it’s what you do.” Watts takes it a step further: “In politics, outreach without relationships leads to rejection.”
Now that they’ve been roundly rejected in consecutive elections, Republicans finally sound willing to walk the walk. That means campaigning vigorously in urban areas and aggressively courting the minority vote—and knowing that those efforts won’t yield immediate dividends. “Winning back these voters is not going to happen with an event, or a 5-point plan. It’s going to take hard work,” says Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Romney’s presidential campaigns. “The effort to win back some of these groups may seem fruitless, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
It’s often said that in politics, demography is destiny. With white voters constituting a shrinking slice of the electorate, Republicans can no longer afford to ignore these “nontraditional” voters. It’s perhaps the hardest, and most important, lesson learned from 2012. “We can never, ever again adopt this mentality,” Madden says, his voice dripping with regret, “that a large section of the American electorate is off-limits to Republicans.”
Step 3: Speak Their Language
The Republican Party must solve what Bolger calls a “math problem” that’s straightforward and startling: Hispanics are the fastest-growing faction of the American electorate, and only 27 percent of them punched the GOP ticket in 2012. If demography is destiny, the party faces an existential crisis; unaddressed, it is capable of rendering Republicans uncompetitive in national elections for decades to come.
To their credit, Republicans seem to be viewing last year’s results as a blessing in disguise, an overdue wake-up call for the party to recalibrate its rhetoric on the issue that largely created this demographic disconnect: immigration. Republicans “have become very doctrinaire on the issue of immigration,” says conservative activist and RedState editor Erick Erickson. Bolger says, “We’ve been tending to give the middle finger to Hispanic voters.” Republicans have sounded “harsh, strange, and impractical,” when speaking about immigration, concurs veteran GOP strategist Fred Malek. Almost across the board, Republican politicians, having stepped back to survey the damage, are reaching the same painful conclusion: Their harsh rhetoric synthesized with obstructionist attitudes to create a perfect political storm driving Hispanics straight into the Democratic camp.
Having belatedly identified the problem, GOP insiders now sound genuinely determined to fix it. In conversations with several dozen party leaders, a broad consensus emerged that their top priority should be tempering their message, starting with a fundamental acknowledgement that immigration is a human issue as much as it is an economic or security matter. “We’re talking about people here, not just numbers,” says Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative organization.