Republican Rebranding Versus Reality

Terrance Heath
Republican Rebranding Versus Reality

In 2012, the GOP’s version of “reality” ran headlong into actual reality — both electoral and otherwise. The collision shattered may Republicans’ perception of reality, and lead to current efforts to “rebrand” the party to appeal to the emerging electorate. That’s difficult enough for a party that’s spent the last few elections vilifying members of the emerging electorate (Blacks, Latinos, women, young voters, gays, etc.).

But the GOP’s “rebranding” efforts are running into another troublesome reality: It’s hard to stop being the “Party of No” when you can’t really say “yes” to what most Americans want.

After several days of debating how to restore their party’s brand, Republican leaders left a party confab in Los Angeles last week in agreement that they can no longer be “the party of no.” But they were less clear on what to say “yes” to.

“To win, we need to be the party of solutions,” says Nebraska GOP chairman JL Spray. Now that Republicans have pointed out problems on issues like immigration, student loans, and the budget, he adds: “Let’s start fixing some things.”

While GOP officials at the party’s spring meeting in Hollywood had plenty of ideas for changing their public rhetoric, however, positive new policy ideas were in shorter supply.

Those sessions were all the more important, Republicans say, because party officials keep making the wrong kinds of headlines. In the past month, Republican officials repudiated Alaska Rep. Don Young for using the slur “wetback,” and Michigan national committeeman Dave Agema for posting on Facebook a story that decries “filthy” homosexuals.

“The lack of relationships in these communities is getting in the way of us talking about the issues,” said one RNC official here this week.

The gathering’s purpose, said RNC officials who recently released a much-publicized autopsy of the 2012 election, was largely to begin reshaping negative perceptions of the GOP. At the meeting, the Republican National Committee’s 168 members sat through upbeat sessions with titles like “How to say what we mean and show that we care,” and “Winning the Women’s vote.”

Those sessions were all the more important, Republicans say, because party officials keep making the wrong kinds of headlines. In the past month, Republican officials repudiated Alaska Rep. Don Young for using the slur “wetback,” and Michigan national committeeman Dave Agema for posting on Facebook a story that decries “filthy” homosexuals.

“The lack of relationships in these communities is getting in the way of us talking about the issues,” said one RNC official here this week.

That “lack of a relationship in these communities” is real and runs very deep for the GOP. Republicans are trying to reach out to people they don’t really know, and haven’t had talk to for decades.

White Folks Talking To White Folks

This presents an incredible opportunity for the other party, but Democrats are too busy trashing their own brand and their “New Deal” legacy by contorting themselves to support cuts to Social Security that would warm the hearts of many Republicans. Look at Congress. More specifically, look at congressional districts. Eighty percent of Republicans come from “whiter-than-average” districts, while sixty percent of Democrats come from more heavily nonwhite seats. That means that for decades, Republicans didn’t have to spend much time talking to or listening to the concerns of non-white voters. They could focus almost exclusively on white voters.

Factor in the impact of redistricting, and the problem is even more apparent. In 2012, it was the GOP’s saving grace. The GOP’s control of redistricting meant that Republicans won the majority of seats in the House, while actually losing the popular vote to Democrats. That’s just the result of Republicans drawing themselves into increasingly conservative, “safe Republican” districts. So, not only has the GOP spent decades talking and listening almost exclusively to white voters, but Republicans have painted themselves into a political corner by speaking almost exclusively to white white conservatives.

Until the Obama era, that approach worked well for  the GOP. From Richard Nixon’s “Law ‘n’ Order” conservatism, Ronald Reagan’s post-convention “states rights” speech in  Neshoba County, Mississippi, and Willie Horton, to “Angry White Men,” Newt Gingrich, and the rise of the tea party, it was a winning strategy for the GOP.  Perhaps that’s why so many were “shell-shocked” that it didn’t work in 2008 or, despite the tea party victory in 2010, in 2012.

Not anymore. Lindsay Graham wasn’t just whistling Dixie when he said, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” Republican pollster Whit Ayers and the Hispanic Leadership Network’s Jennifer Korn came to similar conclusion in a memo summing up a post-election study. Ayers and Korn  declared, “Republicans have run out of persuadable white voters.”

For decades, Republican politics was mostly white folks talking to white folks about white folks. And it worked fine for the GOP. That is, until it didn’t.

America’s New Minority

There are a couple of explanations, the most obvious of which is demographic changes that have been underway for a long time, and have now come to bear on politics. Last year, the Census Bureau announced that for the first time in history whites accounted for less than half of all U.S. births (49.6 percent), while Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and mixed-race Americans accounted for a majority (50.4 percent). Now that this trend is starting to shift political realities, the writing is on the demographic wall for Republicans.

America

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Asking The Wrong Question

The message is simple: evolve and adapt to the new reality, or face possible extinction. And some Republicans deserve credit for at least trying, however clumsily, to adapt. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s and Sen. Rand Paul’s efforts to reach out to African Americans are two recent examples. Unfortunately they reflect two important ways that Republicans have misread the results of the 2012 election, and the writing on the wall for elections to come.

First, Republicans still assume that theirs is primarily an image problem. Last month, the GOP produced its now-infamous “autopsy report,” which said that voters see the GOP as “narrow minded,” “out of touch” and “scary.” That much is true.

But that’s where both the report and the Republicans parted ways with reality again, and decided that the reason why “young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents,” and “many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country” is that the conservative message has been “lost” on those voters. Republicans reasons that all they need to do is change their “tone,” and rescue their “lost” message for minorities, women, and young voters.

But little has changed. Even the “tone” remains the same as it ever was. Rand Paul’s message to Howard University students last week was virtually the same as Mitt Romney’s message to the NAACP convention before the election: “If you knew what was good for you, you’d vote for us.” Read between the lines, this means minorities, women, and young people don’t vote Republican because “they don’t know what’s good for them.” Put bluntly, these voters don’t vote Republican because they’re too dumb to see that they should.

Now, instead of blaming these groups for “not getting it,” Republicans are taking more responsibility for explaining to minority voters why they should be voting Republican. It’s a lot like “mansplaining”, except the GOP has expanded into “whitesplaining” and even “straightsplaning.”

If this represents the GOP’s new “tone,” it misses the point that Republicans have always missed, and suggests that Republicans are still asking the wrong question, and coming up with the wrong answer. Republicans, like other predominantly white organizations, spend more time asking themselves why more African Ameircans/Latinos/women/young people aren’t voting Republican, than asking why they are failing to attract more supporters from those groups.

The GOP message wasn’t lost on minorities, women, or young voters. The reason African Americans, Asians, women, gays, and young voters didn’t vote Republican in 2012 is because the GOP has spent years insulting these groups with its rhetoric, adding insult to injury with its policies. They aren’t into the GOP because the GOP has gone out of its way to show that it’s not into them — or hasn’t been into them until just now.

The reality is that Republicans aren’t attracting more Black, Latino, women, and young voters because they’ve failed to address those voters concerns in any meaningful way. Republicans, are avoiding this reality because addressing it effectively would undermine their remaining base of power.

Trapped By the Base

The biggest reality check for the Republicans’ “rebranding” effort is probably the Republican base itself — or at least what remains of it. Remember the 2008 elections? Remember how Republicans pandered to the basest of their base? Remember how ugly it got?

If 2012 was even slightly better, its because of Republicans assumed victory would their again. Buoyed by the 2010 elections, and encouraged by relative success of their obstructionist tactics in Congress, Republicans assumed that 2012 would bring not merely a restoration to power for the party, but a restoration to primacy for the GOP’s predominantly white, southern, tea party base.

"We The People"In 2008, many the GOP’s overwhelmingly white, heavily southern, predominantly Christian believed their voices had not been heard. It was inconceivable that one such as Barack Obama could have won the presidency without them. It wasn’t supposed to happen, so it must have been the product of conspiracy that went back perhaps all the way to the day Barack Obama was born, and sustained long enough for ACORN to steal the White House for Obama and steal the country from “Real Americans.”

That had to be it, because neither Obama nor the coalition that elected him looked anything like “Real America.” In 2008, John McCain and Sarah Palin reminded us that “Real America” was small-town, white, and Christian. The 2010 election swept the tea party into the House, and into power in the GOP, and it seemed that “Real America” was poised to make a comeback in the next presidential election. In 2012, Mitt Romney reminded us (well, some of “us,” anyway) that Barack Obama was “Not one of us.” And the GOP produced a “Pledge to America” that was utterly forgettable, except that it made painted a picture of Republicans’ “Real America” worth more than a thousand words from any right-wing pundit or presidential candidate.

That America would be restored to its rightful place with the 2012 election, and the election of Barack Obama would be fluke; an historic moment, but a fluke nonetheless. Everything would go back to “normal” and America would come to terms with its well-intentioned “mistake in electing Barack Obama. One subtly racist Romney/Ryan television spot even seemed to give the country a rhetorical “pat on the back,” and to say — as Bill Maher paraphrased it — “You tried. He tried. Black people are lovely, but this president-ing thing really isn’t for them.”

The problem for Republicans is that the majority of American voters decided that they wanted Barack Obama to continue doing “this president-ing thing” for four more years. That majority is decidedly more progressive on social and economic issues than Republican base of “old white people.” This new majority is likely to become more solidly progressive. Younger voters are part of the “Obama majority” and an increasingly important demographic. They’re also very progressive and on their way to mainstreaming their progressive views.

The GOP remains trapped by its own shrinking base, which is so far out of step with the rest of the country, so organized, and so willing to punish Republicans who even hint at straying to far from the farthest of the far right, that the GOP has become as “estranged from America” as its base.

For decades, my colleagues and I have examined the competing forces and coalitions within the two parties. In our most recent national assessments, we found not only that the percentage of people self-identifying as Republicans had hit historic lows but that within that smaller base, the traditional divides between pro-business economic conservatives and social conservatives had narrowed. There was less diversity of values within the GOP than at any time in the past quarter-century.

The party’s base is increasingly dominated by a highly energized bloc of voters with extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues: the size and role of government, foreign policy, social issues, and moral concerns. They stand with the tea party on taxes and spending and with Christian conservatives on key social questions, such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

These staunch conservatives, who emerged with great force in the Obama era, represent 45 percent of the Republican base. According to our 2011 survey, they are demographically and politically distinct from the national electorate. Ninety-two percent are white. They tend to be male, married, Protestant, well off and at least 50 years old.

These voters, the core of the GOP base, are most likely to believe that whites are more racially oppressed than any other group. According to a 2011 Public Religion Institute poll, 56 percent of Republicans, 57% of white evangelicals, and 61 percent of those identifying with the tea party “identify discrimination against whites as being just as big as bigotry aimed at blacks and other minorities.”

As the GOP base is likely to grow angrier still as it gets smaller, further from the center of American politics,  and more alienated from the rest of the country. It’s hard to imagine that the Republican party base will let the GOP make the changes it needs to make to survive in the emerging political reality and beyond. It’s an unfortunate reality for the GOP, which needs to keep what’s left of its base in the short term in order to hold on to power, as much as it needs to expand its base to ensure long term survival.

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