There are two theories among Republicans on how to expand their party’s appeal. Both require reaching out to nontraditional GOP voters on a consistent basis, but the messages are strikingly different.
One is to nibble around the edges of an agenda that may catch the fancy of minority voters. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is not selling the GOP’s main message to minority and college audiences. He condemns the NSA surveillance program, criticizes voter ID laws and advocates drug leniency. The appeal is premised on the notion that his stance on major issues — a vastly shrunken federal government, a flat tax (which even conservatives acknowledge would raise taxes on middle- and lower-class families) and deregulation — will not prevent voters traditionally absent from the GOP fold from voting for an “R.” Like eye-catching ads, it focuses less on substance than on symbolism.
The other outreach strategy is to sell the essence of conservatism to voters but tie the philosophy to the economy, education, health care, energy and other bread and butter issues that a wider array of voters care about. This is the tactic that Republican governors have taken and that potential 2016 candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) advocate. It is premised on the idea that conservatism, if properly explained and seen as delivering results, can be an attractive philosophy for a wider array of voters. It avoids blanket statements about ideology.
The symbolism-intense tactic has some initial benefits, as we’ve seen from Paul’s travels, not the least of which is that it plays to liberal crowds and ingratiates its proponent with the MSM, which often insist voter ID and drug laws are racist and a traditional strong-on-defense foreign policy is “pro-war.” Telling the crowd what they want to hear works so long as it is sufficient to overcome antipathy toward central policy issues. It works best, to be frank, when there is no opponent present to remind the crowd of the rest of the hard right or libertarian agenda. It is highly questionable whether an anti-government message ultimately has appeal to large numbers of African Americans, Hispanics and urban professionals. (Will Berkeley college kids ultimately vote for candidates who want to develop domestic gas and coal and eliminate the Education Department?) Finally, the tactic risks annoying mainstream conservatives who take issue with the idea anti-fraud voting laws are racist or that the NSA is more of a danger to us than al-Qaeda and vehemently disagree with a non-interventionist foreign policy.
The “sell conservatism” tactic eschews stark anti-government rhetoric, taking a populist and reform-oriented message to those who think the GOP is the party of rich people and big business. It largely ignores secondary issues (e.g. voter ID) and makes the case that properly implemented conservatism is better for more people and is more effective at creating opportunity than the liberal welfare state. It features policies like school choice, individualized health care, breaking up big banks, a more family friendly tax code (e.g. increasing the child tax credit) and a pro-jobs energy policy. It focuses on the liberal agenda’s poor results and assumes voters’ most important issues (e.g. the economy, education, health care) will ultimately determine their votes.
The downside of this approach is that some barriers to entry, if you will, may prevent the message from being heard. Strict opposition to immigration reform is the best example, but for some, voter ID or other gateway issues (e.g. gay marriage) may prevent conservatives’ message from getting through. As a center-right message, it may also alienate far right voters who don’t want to reform much of the federal government but eliminate large chunks of it.
In deciding on which approach to take, Republicans should keep in mind a few points.
First, there are gateway issues and then there are gateway issue. Immigration reform, which can be implemented in ways consistent with the broader conservative message, is and can be embraced by large numbers of GOP candidate; abortion on demand can’t. In short, the problem of getting new voters to listen to Republicans is real, but the issues on which a candidate tries to break barriers must be consistent with their overall philosophy and not turn off traditional GOP groups. Moreover, a candidate for office need not take a position on every issue under the sun, especially if the issue is now largely in the realm of state government.
Second, the GOP is the (more) conservative party. There is no escaping or hiding that. Unless the core message of the party is widely applicable and seen as working for every race, age group, etc., it is not going to attract a wide electorate in presidential elections or win over states with large numbers of Democrats. If the type of conservatism the candidate embraces (e.g. libertarianism, populist, reformist) is a turn off, the bells and whistles that get good press coverage and standing ovations on college campuses will be unsuccessful in wooing new voters.
Third, Republican candidates need to win both the primary and the general election, keep most traditional voters and reach new ones and remain intellectually honest. The ultimate test is whether the same message, the same emphasis works with multiple audiences. In the Internet age there is no such thing as a narrow-casted message. If, for example, a candidate delivers a fire and brimstone message on religion in the public square and traditional marriage at a social conservative gathering, the kids at U.C. Berkeley are going to hear about it. Conversely, if he tells college kids he wants to decriminalize marijuana, he better be able to defend that to social conservatives.
Finally, candidates can certainly incorporate some barrier-breakers while staying true to their own brand of conservatism. The right mix of issues, moreover, is not always as important as the messenger, and certainly the GOP can use more diverse conservatives and happy warriors. As in life, hard edges and extreme rhetoric rarely generate consensus.