What This Chevy Commercial Could Teach the GOP

National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Feb. 14, 2014, midnight

To un­der­stand the rolling demo­graph­ic and cul­tur­al trends threat­en­ing the GOP in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, a good place to start might be with the poly­chro­mat­ic ads Chev­ro­let is run­ning dur­ing the Olympics.

First, con­sider the source. Chev­ro­let is not a com­pany that equates buy­ing its product with sav­ing the plan­et. It doesn’t cham­pi­on the rain forest, or­gan­ic farm­ers, or ar­tis­an­al sup­pli­ers with beards like Civil War sol­diers. In the past, its ads have linked the com­pany, without ap­par­ent irony, to “base­ball, hot dogs, [and] apple pie.”

But Chevy’s latest ads, un­der the title “The New Us,” cel­eb­rate the trans­form­a­tion of the Amer­ic­an fam­ily in­to a kal­eido­scop­ic ar­ray of new forms. In cas­cad­ing im­ages, one ad warmly por­trays couples of every race and eth­ni­city, in­ter­ra­cial couples, gay male couples, gay fe­male couples — all rais­ing what ap­pear to be happy, well-ad­jus­ted chil­dren. Not only does Heath­er have two mom­mies; in the world Chev­ro­let evokes, she’s per­fectly fine with it. “While what it means to be a fam­ily hasn’t changed, what a fam­ily looks like, has,” the ad in­tones. “This is the new us.”

The “new us” bears more than a passing re­semb­lance to the new co­ali­tion that has al­lowed Demo­crats to win the pop­u­lar vote in five of the past six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. As the vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Stan­ley B. Green­berg has said, the mod­ern Demo­crat­ic na­tion­al co­ali­tion is es­sen­tially di­verse Amer­ica and the por­tions of white Amer­ica (largely white-col­lar whites, es­pe­cially wo­men) who are com­fort­able with di­verse Amer­ica.

That doesn’t mean, by any count, that all of the GOP co­ali­tion is un­easy with the trends of grow­ing ra­cial di­versity and ac­cept­ance of ho­mo­sexu­al­ity the Chev­ro­let ad evokes. But it is fair to say that the por­tions of Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety most un­easy about these changes — par­tic­u­larly many blue-col­lar, older, and rur­al whites — are con­cen­trated with­in that co­ali­tion.

Sep­ar­ate polling in 2012 by Na­tion­al Journ­al and the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, for in­stance, found that whites split about evenly on wheth­er Amer­ica’s grow­ing di­versity up­holds the na­tion’s tra­di­tions or is chan­ging them too fast — and that the whites who feared the change over­whelm­ingly pre­ferred Mitt Rom­ney to Pres­id­ent Obama. Al­though polls now con­sist­ently show ma­jor­ity sup­port for gay mar­riage, not more than one-fourth of Re­pub­lic­ans agree, only mod­estly more than 15 years ago. This cul­tur­al fault-line looms as the greatest bar­ri­er Re­pub­lic­ans must cross to win back the White House in 2016. In many ways, op­por­tun­it­ies for the GOP are ex­pand­ing. The in­ab­il­ity of the eco­nomy to ac­cel­er­ate bey­ond second gear has cor­roded Obama’s sup­port, par­tic­u­larly among work­ing-class whites who have al­ways been the most du­bi­ous of him. Though im­ple­ment­a­tion of Obama’s health re­form plan has un­deni­ably im­proved — and is stead­ily build­ing an eco­nom­ic con­stitu­ency of pa­tients and pro­viders com­mit­ted to the pro­gram — its over­all pub­lic stand­ing re­mains weak, with most Amer­ic­ans (es­pe­cially whites) doubt­ing it will help them per­son­ally.

These cur­rents are con­ver­ging to pro­duce ser­i­ous risk for Demo­crats in the midterm elec­tions. The risks are com­poun­ded be­cause the crit­ic­al battle­ground for 2014 is the sev­en Demo­crat­ic-held Sen­ate seats in states that voted for Rom­ney over Obama in 2012. These are al­most all whiter, older, blue-col­lar states (like West Vir­gin­ia and Arkan­sas) where there isn’t enough of “the new us” to mo­bil­ize a ma­jor­ity. Those dy­nam­ics could eas­ily tip the Sen­ate back in­to Re­pub­lic­an con­trol this fall, and pre­serve or even slightly ex­pand their House ma­jor­ity.

Yet Re­pub­lic­ans could make those gains without ad­dress­ing any of the cul­tur­al bar­ri­ers that con­front them in pres­id­en­tial con­tests, which draw a lar­ger, young­er, and more di­verse elect­or­ate. The evid­ence, in fact, sug­gests that Re­pub­lic­ans are fur­ther from ad­dress­ing those chal­lenges than they were the day after Obama’s reelec­tion. The rush by GOP lead­ers to cham­pi­on Phil Robertson, the Duck Dyn­asty star, after his re­cent anti-gay re­marks shows the pres­sure the party faces to re­flect those dis­ap­prov­ing be­liefs. That pres­sure is even more vivid in the de­cision by House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers to shelve le­gis­la­tion bar­ring work­place dis­crim­in­a­tion based on sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion — and the fact that every Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an con­sid­er­ing the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race felt com­pelled to vote against it when the bill passed that cham­ber, even though polls show two-thirds of Amer­ic­ans sup­port the idea.

House Speak­er John Boehner cap­tured an even lar­ger prob­lem last week when he aban­doned im­mig­ra­tion re­form just days after un­veil­ing “prin­ciples” that might have pro­duced a deal. Though some ana­lysts see a stra­tegic re­treat de­signed to re­sur­face an ini­ti­at­ive later, Boehner’s ab­ject sur­render has em­boldened the party’s im­mig­ra­tion op­pon­ents in a man­ner that will make it tough­er for the House to ever act, or for the party’s 2016 can­did­ates to re­pos­i­tion them­selves on the is­sue. It’s not hard to draw a line between Boehner’s ca­pit­u­la­tion and the first 2016 GOP pres­id­en­tial de­bate where Sean Han­nity asks any­one who sup­ports “Pres­id­ent Obama’s am­nesty” to raise his hand.

With its “The New Us” com­mer­cial, Chev­ro­let (like Coca-Cola and Cheeri­os in sim­il­arly themed re­cent ads) ac­know­ledged it is com­pet­ing in a chan­ging Amer­ica. The GOP’s re­cent ac­tions sug­gest it still hasn’t crossed that threshold.

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