Why the Republicans can't easily solve their demographic problem

african kings

Republicans aren’t unaware of the challenges of winning a presidential election when four of every five non-white voters backs the Democrats.

Florida’s Mario Rubio, the Cuban-American senator who is one of the party’s biggest stars, declared after the election “the conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.”

Karl Rove and other top operatives have been thinking about the party’s demographic problems for more than a decade.

But winning more minority voters won’t be simple. Republicans are facing three different and distinct issues: history, policy and perception.

History is perhaps most important in considering blacks, fewer than 10 percent of whom backed Romney. Barack Obama has only strengthened the long-standing alliance between the Democratic Party and blacks, 88 percent of whom supported John Kerry in 2004.  Blacks have overwhelming voted Democratic for generations, since Harry Truman desegregated the Armed Forces back in the 1940’s. Democrats implemented key civil rights legislation, and now they are the party of the first black president.

The GOP’s gap with Latinos is newer, as George W. Bush won about 40 percent of the Latino vote, about 13 points higher than Romney. The simple explanation is that Republicans have adopted both harsh rhetoric (during the campaign, Mitt Romney called for “self-deportation” by Latinos, suggesting they would leave the country on their own if conditions were made difficult enough) and policies opposed by Hispanics, particularly opposing a path to citizenship for people here who not legal residents. Obama smartly courted this growing bloc, implementing an executive order that effectively ends the threat of deportation for law-abiding, young Latinos.

But a Gallup poll from this summer points to another challenge on policy: Latinos support a larger role for government, putting them closer to the Democratic view than the Republican one on the core difference between the two parties. In the survey, 37 percent of Americans overall agreed with the idea that the government should “do more,” but 57 percent of Hispanics did. Only 41 percent of Latinos cast the government as already “doing too much,” compared to 57 percent of Americans overall.

A Quinnipiac University poll this summer showed about 52 percent of Hispanics favored keeping in place President Obama’s health care law, compared to 37 percent of whites. (This may of course reflect feelings about Obama as much as the law itself.)

There’s less polling of Asian-Americans, who are 3 percent of the electorate and backed Obama by nearly 50 points. But a Pew Research Center poll earlier this year showed they too have a Democratic view of the role of the federal government. According to Pew, 55 percent of Asians would prefer a “larger government that provides more services” over a smaller government with fewer services. That is contrast to 52 percent of Americans overall who prefer a smaller government.

The perception problem is harder to show with data. But three straight elections (2008, 2010, 2012) that have been defined by effectively a younger, diverse party against an older, whiter one could complicate Republican efforts going forward. If the GOP is cast by Democrats and even the press as the party of white voters, it will make it harder to recruit even conservative-minded minorities reluctant to back minorities.

So what can the GOP do? If Latinos are simply more pro-government than other voting blocs, Republicans may narrow, but won’t eliminate the demographic gap simply by adopting new stances and a softened tone on immigration, as they have signaled they will do in the near future. And the party can’t easily shift its view on the important of smaller government, as that is what unifies conservatives, although Republicans could emphasize their positions on issues like education more.

The most obvious approach for Republicans is a minority on the national ticket who could change perceptions of the party, redefine its history and perhaps reorient its policy proposals as well. To be sure, politics are not all about identity; George W. Bush didn’t win black votes despite his alliances with Colin Powell and Condi Rice, and Rubio didn’t win Florida for Romney.

But the biggest buzz about a potential vice-presidential candidate for Romney was when Condi Rice’s name was briefly floated. Rubio is giving a speech in Iowa later this month, suggesting he will run for president and would be a stronger contender for No. 2 on the ticket if he doesn’t win.

It’s not clear Rice or Rubio, even as the presidential candidate, would win close to a majority of black, Hispanic or Asian voters. But despite Obama’s resounding win in the electoral college, Romney was not that far from victory. If he carried just 30 percent of the minority vote, he would likely have won at least the popular vote. We’ll likely found out in 2016 if a Republican minority candidate can make up that difference.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr