While most of the focus at the Tampa Bay Times Forum is on the speeches given from the Republican Party convention stage, AJ Feeney-Ruiz is quietly delivering a different message.
He was one of a handful of state and local Hispanic candidates being introduced to the national media -- and to party activists who can boost their prospects.
“It’s important for Republicans around the country to see us,” said Feeney-Ruiz, who’s seeking a state legislative seat in Indianapolis and participating in the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Hispanic outreach program.
Republicans have long had an advantage among white voters -- a constituency with whom President Barack Obama is losing ground. Yet, they’ve struggled with non-white voters who may hold the key to future national elections. The non-white share of the electorate rose to 26 percent in 2008 from 13 percent in 1992, exit poll data show.
Obama’s lead over Republican rival Mitt Romney -- by 94 percent to 0 percent among black voters in an Aug. 16-20 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll -- underscored the overwhelming levels of support black voters have given Democratic presidential nominees since the 1930s. Republicans have won no more than 14 percent of black voters in eight consecutive presidential elections dating to 1980, including just 4 percent in 2008, national exit polls show.
Hispanic voters also vote Democratic, if less monolithically so than black voters. Obama has led Romney by ratios of 2-to-1 or greater among Hispanics voters, polls show, consistent with the 67 percent to 31 percent margin by which Obama won Hispanic voters in the 2008 election.
Republicans “have a real problem with immigration” among Hispanic voters, Jan Leighley, a government professor at American University in Washington, said in an interview. Romney is calling for an immigration policy that would lead to “self-deportation.”
It’s an imbalance Romney and Republican Party strategists are trying to erase -- or mitigate in order to remain viable in national elections.
In their outreach efforts to Hispanics, Republicans “were asleep at the wheel for a very long time, but I think they’ve woken up,” Manuel Castaneda, a Republican who’s seeking a state legislative seat in Oregon, said Aug. 28 in Tampa.
“The biggest Latino names in politics are Republicans,” he said, pointing to Florida Senator Marco Rubio and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.
Wiselet Rouzard, 25, is a black Haitian-American delegate who gives his party an “F” for minority outreach, saying in an interview that it should attract minority voters by promoting “liberty” and “constitutional rights.”
“If we continue to nominate people like Mitt Romney, it won’t improve,” said Rouzard, who supported Texas Representative Ron Paul in the primary.
In addition to the leadership committee program, the Republicans are using the national convention in Tampa to highlight black and Hispanic officeholders and party activists.
“The convention will feature a tremendous amount of diversity in our party,” Sean Spicer, the communications director for the Republican National Committee, said in an interview. The party’s voter-identification and get-out-the-vote operations “also take all of the demographics into consideration,” he said.
They include Artur Davis, a black former Democratic congressman from Alabama who gave a nominating speech for Obama at the 2008 Democratic convention and shifted his affiliation to Republican this year, and Mia Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, who’s running to become the first black female Republican member of Congress.
The “American Dream” includes stories of “a woman on a bus to a man with a dream,” Love said, referring to Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in her Aug. 28 convention address.
Prominent Hispanic Republicans with high-profile convention speaking slots include Rubio, who will introduce Romney on Aug. 30, and Ted Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general who is expected to win an open Senate seat and become the state’s first Hispanic senator.
Obama’s campaign “is trying to divide America” and is “telling Hispanics that we’re not welcome here,” Cruz said during his Aug. 28 speech.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said Republicans should appeal to minority voters by emphasizing small business issues and the entrepreneurial American dream while downplaying immigration or other specific issues tied to a racial minority.
Republicans “take on a huge risk if we try to appeal to” minority voters “within a mindset of silos instead of making direct appeals on the issues that they’re actually talking about in their household,” Walker said at a Bloomberg/Washington Post breakfast Aug. 29 in Tampa.
Romney could still win the election even if he does poorly among non-white voters. Obama’s subpar performance among working-class white voters, those with non-professional jobs and without college degrees, many of them in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, is hampering his re-election campaign, polls show.
Romney also would benefit from a lower turnout from non-white voters compared with 2008, when Obama was elected the nation’s first black president in a good Democratic year.
Black voters were 13 percent of the electorate four years ago, up from 11 percent in 2004, while the Hispanic electorate rose to 9 percent from 8 percent. Hispanics are more numerous than blacks, census data show, yet they represent a smaller share of the electorate because of below-average rates of citizenship, voter registration and turnout.
“We’ve never done well with those groups, but think about who this economic downturn has affected the most -- blacks, Hispanics, young people,” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters at a Tampa luncheon sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor Aug. 27.
The unemployment rate in July was 14.1 percent for blacks and 10.3 percent for Hispanics, compared with 7.4 percent for whites. The rate for all workers was 8.3 percent.
“These groups have been hit the hardest,” he said. “They may not show up and vote for our candidate, but I suggest to you that they won’t show up and vote for the president, either.”