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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”