On the first night of the Republican National Convention, a 37-year-old black woman delivered a spirited speech to the audience of largely white, largely middle-aged delegates. Mia Love, the GOP mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, and a candidate for Congress, was born to Haitian parents who came to Brooklyn with $10 and who, Love proudly said, “never took a handout” from the government. She was followed on stage by a succession of speakers who also didn’t fit the white-guy-in-a-tie Republican mold: Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who is Indian American; Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico; former Barack Obama supporter Artur Davis; Brian Sandoval, governor of Nevada; Sher Valenzuela, who’s running for lieutenant governor in Delaware; and Ted Cruz, a Harvard-educated Tea Party candidate from Texas. They told of coming to America, overcoming adversity, and finding a home in the GOP.
The decision to showcase their stories in prime time says a lot about the Republican Party’s increasingly urgent desire to be seen as welcoming to minorities and women. It’s more than a show of inclusiveness. After decades of half-hearted efforts to attract blacks, Hispanics, and unmarried white women, most of whom vote for Democrats, GOP leaders realize that unless it expands its pool of support, the party could slide into irrelevance in coming decades.
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The numbers tell the story. Nearly 87 percent of registered Republican voters are white, according to the Pew Research Center. In contrast, 61 percent of registered Democrats are white, 21 percent are black, and 10 percent are Hispanic. These numbers are becoming more important because minorities have accounted for 85 percent of the country’s population growth over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Hispanics make up the largest portion of that growth, and President Obama leads Mitt Romney by 34 percentage points among Hispanics, an August NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll shows. Among women, who have leaned Democratic for three decades, Obama leads by 14 points. Men are split evenly. The Census projects that non-whites will outnumber whites by 2042. If voting and population trends continue, Republicans face what Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders have described as an electoral tipping point, when the party will have trouble securing a majority of the popular vote.
The effect is already visible in this year’s presidential race. William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, calculates that the number of registered Hispanic voters has grown enough since 2008 that if Obama maintains the same proportion of minority support that he held four years ago, he can win California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin even without the backing of a majority of whites.
Given all that, it’s easy to see why Republicans are looking to increase their appeal to women and especially to non-whites. It’s been a tough sell. Among other things, the party’s traditional opposition to unions and affirmative action, and Romney’s vow to repeal the Affordable Care Act, keep most blacks at arm’s length. And the party isn’t doing much better among Hispanics. “We were at a great point in 2004,” laments Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, which works to attract Hispanics to the GOP. That year George W. Bush, who bucked his party and advocated for less stringent immigration rules, won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Since then, says Korn, “It seemed to go by the wayside.”
At the same time Obama is campaigning on his decision to stop deportations of young illegal immigrants, Republicans are embracing tough immigration laws in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. That may reassure white Republicans, but it drives off Hispanics. “I call it the immigration earmuffs,” says Korn. “Even if they agree with you on lower taxes, on jobs, and less regulation, they’ve been turned off by harsh immigration rhetoric.”
Party leaders don’t seem to know what to do about it. Changing their positions on issues to win the support of women and minorities would mean abandoning some of the GOP’s core beliefs. Instead, they insist that what they need to do is the opposite: Stick to what they believe and persuade voters to come to them. “It’s more of a how do we describe this issue to key demographics, as opposed to a change in policy,” says Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who advises congressional candidates. The party must appeal to those “trying to make ends meet, making sacrifices every day, taking coupons into the grocery store—and directly appealing to them that Mitt Romney has a better plan.” In Tampa, that vision of a Republican Party, flush with black and Hispanic true believers, came to life. At least on stage.