Jamelle Bouie has a (gleefully) pessimistic take on the ability of Republicans to win over Latino voters. He also rightly points out that Republicans are doing even worse among Asian-American voters. I am a little more optimistic about Republican chances to make gains among nonwhites. Or at least I was until I heard Nicolle Wallace spread her wisdom. Now let’s keep in mind that Wallace is a former White House Communications Director. She should be one of the go-to Republicans on communications and coalition management. So, on the subject of Marco Rubio, she said:
Yeah, look, he’s everything we need and more. He’s modern. He knows who Tupac is. He is on social media. He’s part of the sort of — he has all the blessings of the old political establishment. He’s close to the younger Bushes. He and Jeb Bush and George P. Bush create what I call that axis of enlightenment when it comes to immigration. I mean, he’s got the policy. He’s in touch with, I think, the lives of ordinary people. And he’s a very accessible guy. He talks about being a working dad and juggling his own priorities.
He is on the twitter. The Bush family likes him (and we all know how nostalgic the median voter is for the Bush family.) He is familiar with the existence of a long-dead rapper. I bet he even listens to Nirvana and does the Lindy Hop. Wallace’s reaction is way too close to the dominant reaction among Republican elites since the election. Put out a nonwhite presidential candidate and come out for amnesty. Maybe make some superficial references to last generation’s pop culture (Paul Ryan does some of this too.) One thing Bouie is right about is that a Republican strategy of amnesty + Rubio + nothing = more Democratic voters. I’m not really sweating that. Because of the Latino population’s relatively younger age profile, the Latino electorate is going to expand substantially regardless of whether there is an amnesty. If they are going to be competitive, Republicans are going to have to make major gains among nonwhites regardless.
Bouie argues that the median Latino voter is to the left of the median white voter. That is true, but Republicans don’t have to win the median Latino voter to win elections. They just need better margins among nonwhites. That is still going to mean winning lots of people over, but it is probably achievable. It isn’t achievable with either the strategy of the Romney campaign or the strategy sketched out by former Bush family retainers like Nicolle Wallace and Karl Rove.
I remember the last night of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Rubio introduced Romney. It was a pretty good speech. He connected his family’s story with limited government and family-oriented upward mobility. He authentically integrated an immigrant narrative into the conservative narrative. The problem was that Rubio’s speech was preceded by Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-worthy performance as a hostile satire of a confused, irritable, out-of-touch, elderly white Republican. The coverage of the night was dominated by stories about Eastwood’s train wreck. How many votes did Romney lose because Eastwood stepped on Rubio’s speech?
I say zero. Talking about upward mobility doesn’t help with voters who aren’t already inclined to vote Republican unless that upward mobility talk is combined with clear explanations of policies that will plausibly improve the lives of those voters. And cutting taxes on high earners isn’t going to get it done.
There is a policy problem. A voter can rightly ask “How will your policies help me and my family.” A message that amounts to “we need to cut taxes on the high earners who built that and cut spending on the government to balance the budget” is self-defeating. We are going to need plenty of spending cuts to bring the debt down to a sustainable level, but, if Republicans are going to have a chance, those budget plans will have to be paired with pro–middle class policies that can promise tangible benefits. Pro-family tax policy and pro-consumer health care policy would seem like the obvious places to start.
There is also a media problem. There is a media ecosystem that tells nonconservatives what Obama wants. Lots of people know that Obama wants to increase health insurance coverage and make investments in the things he says will make the economy better. You don’t have to believe every word, but you have a sense of what he is for. People (and especially younger people) who don’t consume much right-leaning media know only two things about the Republicans. First, they are against the things Obama wants and second, they are for the rich. Rubio’s convention speech, even if it had been much better and more substantive than the one he gave, could not have changed that impression. Most of the target audience wasn’t watching some politician talking – an even if they had, the impression he made would have been very limited.
People change their minds slowly. Even when people seem to be changing their minds quickly, there was probably a lengthy and partly unconscious process of them getting ready to change their minds. I remember talking to several Obama supporters in the aftermath of the first presidential debate. These Obama supporters weren’t exactly ideological for the most part. They weren’t for his health care plan’s details. They just knew he had one and was on their side – which was more than they could say about the Republicans. Then they saw Romney pick Obama apart. Their response was frustration and disappointment, but they never considered voting for Romney. A big part of it was, even though Romney explained why tax increases were a bad idea, they heard no Romney agenda that would directly impact their lives. And even if Romney had a positive and relevant agenda, they still probably would not have been ready to hear it from Romney in October of 2012. People’s impressions of parties and candidates (but especially of parties) aren’t formed just at election time. Even people who pay little attention to politics end up hearing messages about parties. Most of these messages are fleeting but they combine to form an impression. If you are waiting until the last couple of months before a presidential election, you are probably too late.
Until Republicans have something real to say, and figure out a way to get their agenda out to people who don’t already lean Republican, the ethnic identity of Republican candidates won’t matter, and neither will their familiarity with the East Coast-West Coast rivalry.