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What Mitt Romney and the GOP still don’t get about minorities

Former Massachusetts governor  and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaking in National Harbor, Md., on  March 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

When pressed to describe his 2012 campaign foibles on NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday, Mitt Romney’s response covered what for many political obsessives might have felt like some familiar territory.

“I think the biggest mistake I made was not focusing very early on minority voters,” Romney said. “As a conservative group of people, our policies are designed to help people get out of poverty and to see rising incomes.”

That comment somewhat contradicts his own post 2012-election claims that Obama won because of “gifts” to minorities. Back then, Romney said that Obama followed the “old playbook” of using targeted initiatives to woo specific interest groups.

[Mitt Romney convenes 2016 contenders, donors for Utah retreat]

But that aside, the idea that Republicans need to do a better job appealing to voters of color certainly isn't new -- nor is talking about it openly. In fact, it dates back decades. And Republicans are still failing to find answers.

In 1983, Lionel Sosa, a Hispanic Republican and political consultant, was talking to President Ronald Reagan about a planned reelection bid when Reagan said something that continues to guide Republican outreach to Latinos today. Reagan listened to Sosa’s presentation and then boiled it down to something like this: 'Latinos are Republicans – they just don’t know it yet.' When Sosa told me that story decades later in 2012, it still made him chuckle.

That anecdote is telling, as it speaks to a party that still has a tough time grasping its growing losses among minority voters -- and the real reasons for them.

Saying that the party needs to re-frame its ideas and doing so are, of course, two very different tasks. But Romney has a prescription, which he laid out in a separate interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe:" He said Republicans need to talk about things like the importance of business in different, household-level terms like jobs and economic security.

That could help, but it also obscures the real reason Democrats dominate among minorities: policies. And increasingly, data suggest that no amount of repackaging is going to produce major minority voter gains for Republicans. Only actual platform revisions and policy changes -- real shifts in the party’s positions -- seem capable of a job this big.

Just about this time last year, Pew Research Center staff asked a group of just over 10,000 adults questions to try to gauge something they called “political values” -- core ideas that guide what sorts of policies individual voters support. In essence, Pew measured ideological consistency.

The survey asked voters to rank how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like, “Government regulation of business usually does more harm than good.” That question alone revealed a vast divide between Republicans and Democrats, with 68 percent of Republicans telling pollsters they agreed and just 29 percent of Democrats doing the same.

Assembling all the data, the survey found that as a whole Americans lean slightly more liberal than conservative, with 34 percent registering consistently left of center and 27 percent consistently to the right.

But for African-American voters, this margin was far wider, with 48 percent of those who answered the pollster’s questions registering consistently liberal, versus just 7 percent as conservative. Among Latino voters, the split wasn’t quite so large, but still substantial. A full 39 percent of Hispanic voters leaned consistently to the left, while just 11 percent leaned regularly to the right.

It also seems that existing Republican voters, who are overwhelmingly white and increasingly conservative, might be making matters even more complicated for Republican candidates. Pew found evidence that since 1994, the share of Democratic Party voters who take conservative positions on a number of issues has receded. During that same time period, the portion of Republicans who do the same has, on all but a few issues, grown. In short, the two party's voters are moving further apart on most issues.

With those conditions in place, no candidate will have an easy time holding on to the party's existing base and bringing in voters who have supported Democrats.

Pew's findings comport with others that provide a more detailed view of voter beliefs by race. Exit polls in 2012, for example, asked voters whether they agreed with the idea that abortion should be legal in all or almost all cases; 55 percent of white voters put themselves in that category, compared to 75 percent of black voters, 72 percent of Asian voters and 66 percent of Latino voters. White Americans are pretty evenly divided on abortion, while no more than 30 percent of voters who identified as a person of color oppose it in most cases.

The differences aren’t quite so stark along racial lines when it comes to gay marriage, but still a majority of black, Asian and Latino voters told exit pollsters that they think their state should legalize gay marriage. About 47 percent of white voters said the same.

On health care, the racial divide is extremely clear. A full 58 percent of white voters who responded to the 2012 exit poll said they believed that the Affordable Care Act should be partially or totally repealed. Just 18 percent of black voters agreed with that idea, while 33 percent of Latinos and 19 percent of Asians did the same.

It is, of course, worth noting that Latino voters captured in the exit poll do seem to come closer to white voters on major issues than other racial groups. But in 2008 and 2012, Republicans captured what the party has itself described as a worryingly small share of the Hispanic vote -- just 27 percent.

After the 2012 election, a lot of that has was blamed on Romney’s hard-line immigration stance -- including "self-deportation" – during the primary. But the political ideology info gleaned by Pew and specific policy questions raised in the exit poll make it clear that the party’s challenges don't begin and end with immigration.

They are wide and deep. Only a Republican willing to break with some or all of the party’s orthodoxy would seem to have much of a real chance at siphoning off a substantial portion of the minority vote.

Until Republicans recognize that, saying they need to appeal to minorities is likely going to amount to little more than words.