Back in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich observed that every society faces an immigration challenge (this was when he was a somewhat more reliable ideas man). He said that there are geographic immigrants (who come from some other place), and there are temporal immigrants (who are born into society). It is the task of society to integrate—to form ties—with both groups of immigrants. Immigrants of all sorts, whether the young or the foreign born, need to be persuaded to support a political coalition. But the right has favored a strategy of mobilization over a strategy of persuasion, ignoring those who have no clear (or good) memories of Carter Malaise or the Reagan Era. As a result, more and more general election voters—some of them moderately conservative—choose to ignore the right.
The political right's struggles with nonwhite voters are well known. In 2012, Romney somehow managed to win a smaller share of the Hispanic and Asian-American vote than did John McCain in 2008—even though Romney was running under more favorable circumstances. Less noted was Romney's relative weakness among young white voters. Romney won 51 percent of the votes among young whites; his six-point margin among young whites was much smaller than his twenty-point margin among whites overall.
It doesn't have to be that bad. The fraction of Hispanics that holds right-of-center views on taxes and size of government is larger than the group that voted for Romney. Young voters, too, are much more ideologically ambivalent (and much more pro-life) than one would think given Obama's huge margin among that group.
Starting in the 1980s, the center-right hit upon a winning formula. If it could mobilize voters whose political identities had been formed in the second half of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, then it could win—and win big. Romney basically managed to mobilize that coalition in 2012, but it turned out that the tides of immigration (both temporal and geographic) had rendered that coalition too small to win a presidential election.
The politics of mobilization can be seen in Romney's promise, at the 2012 Republican National Convention, to respect the “sanctity of life”; it can be seen in ads that are an almost incomprehensible stew of talk radio-derived zingers; and it ends with outright Reagan nostalgia. These sound bites build on associations that already exist. The phrase “sanctity of life” doesn't just assume opposition to abortion. It assumes familiarity with a certain kind of pro-life discourse. The use of Reagan assumes familiarity with a president who last won an election thirty years ago. The politics of mobilization cannot convince (or even be understood by) anyone who is not already convinced.
The politics of persuasion looks like the extended commercials by the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA); it looks like Bill Clinton's speech to the 2012 Democratic National Convention in which he made an extended defense of the (weak) Obama recovery; it looks like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. The ASPCA commercials create, rather than merely trade on emotional connections. Instead of pulling on old bonds, the politics of persuasion uses reason and sentiment to create new bonds.
Superficially, the politics of mobilization is easier and cheaper than the politics of persuasion. It is faster since it tends to work through familiar slogans and pre-existing impressions. This is especially important in paid media, since time is money.
But that speed, that ease, and that familiarity come with costs. What is the use of thirty-second ads that convince only those who already agree with you and are meaningless to everyone else? The cheap, quick method of mobilization wastes hundreds of millions of dollars of donor money. What of those millions of Americans for whom Reagan is a barely remembered name from history class (along with that guy who went by three initials), but who don't want their taxes raised? What about those millions of Americans who are uneasy about abortion but have no personal connection to the pro-life movement, and whose only knowledge of abortion extremism is the fading memory of some Republican candidate from Missouri?
No political movement can survive without mobilizing its supporters, but no political movement can prosper without appealing to those not already in the ranks. For a long time, the right's balance of investment has been too tilted to mobilization and away from persuasion.
To conclude with one small example: How many Americans know about President Obama's abortion extremism? Why didn't the center-right point this out? One part of the answer is likely the squeamishness of the Republican consulting class when it comes to abortion (a squeamishness not shared by their Democratic counterparts). The other part of the answer is that it would have been difficult. It would have been hard to convince otherwise undecided voters that Obama had voted against legal protections for newborns who survived botched abortions. It would have taken time and tact to get the point across. It would have changed how some people thought about Obama, but it would also have required an investment in the politics of persuasion.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.