In the debate on immigration reform, nearly all of the discussion concerning the GOP’s appeal to minorities has focused on Hispanics. This, in many ways, underestimates the problem in the post-Bush 43 Republican Party.
Consider that in 2004 President George W. Bush got almost 12 percent of the black vote. Not much, you say, but that’s a figure most Republicans aspiring to national office would be glad to have.
Moreover, the party’s share of the Asian vote has plummeted. In 1992, 55 percent of the Asian vote went for George H.W. Bush in 1992. In 1996, Bob Dole won a plurality (48 percent to 43 percent). In 2000, George W. Bush lost the Asian vote but still got 41 percent of those voters. And in 2004, Bush’s share of the Asian vote increased to 44 percent. In 2008, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) got only 35 percent of the Asian vote, and in 2012 Mitt Romney got a measly 27 percent of Asians.
If the GOP could simply get back to Bush 43’s numbers among minority groups (not merely with Hispanics), its ability to win presidential elections would improve immensely.
So what did Bush do? Ed Gillespie, who was the communications director for Bush’s 2000 campaign, the party chairman during the 2004 campaign and counselor to the president from 2007-2008, tells me. “We made a concerted effort to increase our share of the black, Hispanic and Asian-American vote. It started early.” But it was more than just organized outreach. He recalls, “Much of it had to do with his language, as well. President Bush was intuitively inclusive. When you look at the way he spoke about immigration reform, it was welcoming and respectful.” The empathetic approach to immigration reform improved the GOP’s appeal with a variety of groups Republicans have struggled to attract of late, he argues: “That didn’t just resonate with voters of Hispanic descent, but all minority groups and women and Catholics too.”
Another senior Bush adviser concurs but adds that No Child Left Behind was also a factor with minorities, as was a more diverse party. (“Our convention delegates were like 20 percent non-white.”)
Others see a more fundamental problem with the party’s message and tone since Bush left office. A savvy African American conservative contends that “the hard right embraces blacks who espouse a fierce, go-it-alone economic libertarianism with a hard-edged social conservatism and a penchant for off-base comparisons between welfare and slavery and Democrats and plantations.” That is a dead-bang loser, he says: “There is literally no evidence that such a message resonates in the black community and it probably isn’t meant to. To the contrary, it is intended less to persuade blacks than to ratify the hard right’s notions that expressing such views is not racist.”
That is tough talk, but he is on to something. Former Republican congressman Allen West and E.W. Jackson, Virginia’s right-wing candidate for lieutenant governor, may thrill white radio talk show hosts and conservative media, but theirs is not a message that offers much to African Americans other than “I’m pro-life and can’t possibly be racist.” (Think Alan Keyes.)
So let’s recap. The GOP stopped reaching out to minorities. It adopted a harsh tone, opposing immigration reform and threatening to round up anyone here illegally. And its extra-harsh rhetoric on the evils of government (rather than the reform of government) didn’t connect with minority voters, who saw no obvious appeal in a message that castigated all receivers of benefits as moochers.
The exceptions, not surprisingly, have been the governors. In 2009, Chris Christie took 32 percent of Asian voters in New Jersey. In 2010 Rick Scott got 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida. In 2010 Brian Sandoval got 33 percent of the Hispanic vote and 40 percent of the Asian vote in Nevada. Rick Perry got 11 percent of the African American vote and 38 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas. And in 2012 Mike Pence got 14 percent of the African American vote in Indiana.
In other words, when Republicans eschew harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and focus on improving health care, schools, etc. they can make the case to a much greater percentage of minorities. This should surprise no one, but the bearers of the anti-immigration reform and anti-government (as opposed to pro-reform) message don’t seem to get it. Hopefully GOP primary voters do and will choose candidates wisely.