Whit Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research, is among the most respected pollsters in GOP circles. (As a caveat, his firm has two GOP 2016 hopefuls as clients, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida.) His new book, “2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America,” makes the simple case that a conservative message based on individual liberty, free markets, a strong national defense and support for families is not and cannot be directed only to white voters. “These values know no ethnic boundaries,” he says in a telephone interview. Republicans cannot win at the national level without recognizing the increasingly diverse electorate. “We need to adopt an inclusive message and an inclusive tone,” he says.
Republicans opposed to immigration reform argue the GOP can make up for minority voters by turning out whites who did not vote in past years and by winning white working-class voters. The problem with this theory? “It’s eighth-grade algebra,” Ayres said. “There are not enough white voters left to cobble together a majority in the new America.” Since 1996 with each presidential election the percentage of the white vote has declined on average 2.75 percent. To win without expanding their minority voter support would require a “breathtaking majority of white voters,” he explains. There was only one time that happened in history, 1984 in Ronald Reagan’s 49-state sweep. He argues, “We cannot set the standard for our candidates to be the biggest election landslide in 50 years.” Anti-reform voices point to conservative non-voters, but says Ayres if all of them turned out and all voted in 2012, Mitt Romney still would have lost.
Updating the party’s message on immigration is not sufficient but it is necessary to access Hispanic voters. “It is not going to solve all the problems nor is it the most important issue with Hispanics,” he says. “But it is a threshold issue. If you are an ardent opponent of immigration reform and are trying to deport 11 million people, it is really hard to persuade Hispanics that you care about them.” This does not mean necessarily winning the Hispanic vote, but the GOP presidential nominee must do better than Mitt Romney’s atrocious 27 percent among Hispanic voters. To win, that number has to move into the 40s, a task that has been accomplished by plenty of candidates including former senator Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), Rubio (who got 55 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2010), George W. Bush (who got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 and won Hispanics in the Sunbelt) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.).
The notion that an immigration stance that does not entail deporting 11 million people is death in the GOP primaries is “silly,” Ayres argues. Indeed, there is a mountain of polling evidence from his book to support his argument. Earned legal status draws 63 percent for and 30 percent against among Republicans and proposals allowing DREAMers legal status registers 80 percent for, 15 against among Republicans. When you drop the word “amnesty” and describe the terms of the Senate bill (pay a fine, get a job, learn English, pay back taxes, etc.) support among Republicans goes above 2/3. Republicans, however, get repeatedly snookered by about one quarter of the party, led by anti-immigrant groups and talk show hysterics who intimidate candidates and convince them theirs is a majority view.
Beyond immigration reform, candidates who embrace a very harsh anti-government message tend not to do well with minority voters. “They don’t do well with women either,” says Ayres. “A strident, rigid, judgmental tone turns off most Americans.” He recalls that when presented with a list of words Republican focus group members will deem as the least attractive word “confrontation.” Ayres cracks, “That is primarily because of women voters. I think that conjures up images of their ex-husband.”
The savvier candidates understand this all too well. It is interesting that while Jeb Bush gets the attention on the issue, even responsible media outlets regularly mislead the public into believing he is to the “left” of the field and is the only one who supports some pathway to legalization. Rubio’s bill included a pathway to citizenship. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has given speeches decrying the notion we can deport 11 million. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence had an ingenious plan when he was in Congress to deal with those already here. Former Texas governor Rick Perry has gained kudos for securing the border but embraced in-state tuition for illegals’ children and has supported a “thoughtful” approach to dealing with the millions here illegally. (He once commented, “If Gov. Romney had it to do all over again, the word self-deportation would have never come out of his mouth.”) A candidate like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker need not ape the talk show crowd in taking a “no legalization ever” stance; as a candidate seeking to unite the party, he can adopt a border security first stance just as these others have done without losing the mainstream GOP voters he will need to win the nomination or the general election voters he would need to win the election.
Republicans need to stop kidding themselves. A pro-middle class and working class agenda is going to attract voters of all ethnicities. A more reasonable tone and an emphasis on problem-solving will win over some women and independents. But so long as GOP candidates get bamboozled by the anti-immigration crowd, they will not be competitive in presidential elections. The good news is that they can take a stance that respects the rule of law, aims to secure the border first and provides for a whole list of qualifications before allowing for legalization (not even citizenship) and still unite the party and remain viable in the general election. No wonder the anti-immigration advocates are so loud: If Republicans started to figure this out (and, God forbid, understand the economic benefits of immigrants) they’d be ignored or shunned. The GOP should be so lucky.