Barack Obama’s two presidential election victories were built on the backs of three groups in which he received landslide victories. Obama won with margins on the order of two-to-one with black, Hispanic and young voters both times he ran. These lopsided numbers with minorities and millennials provided him with the slim margin that he needed to eke out a victory over Mitt Romney in spite of a strong showing by Romney among white voters. If any Republican hopes to win a national election in the future, it is axiomatic that he must slice deeply into the Democratic advantage with minority and millennial voters.
The Democratic plan has been one of targeting their message to individual demographic groups in a divide-and-conquer strategy. Black voters are told that Republicans are racist and want to suppress them at the polls and repeal the Voting Rights Act. Hispanics are told that Republicans are racist and want to deport them. Millennials are swayed by Obama’s “cool” factor. The razor thin rationales targeting the various demographic groups should be permeable to Republican attacks.
President Obama’s unpopularity and the failure of his agenda present a unique opportunity for Republicans. Voters who were firmly in the Obama camp may now be willing to listen to alternative viewpoints. Charles Ellison recently wrote in The Root that dissatisfaction with the president and high black unemployment are resulting in tempered black support for Democratic candidates. Likewise, high unemployment among millennials may hurt their support for Democrats as well. With respect to Hispanics, Democrats have promised immigration reform for six years and failed to deliver.
The necessary first step for Republicans is to remove the stumbling blocks that prevent minorities from voting for Republican candidates. Republican candidates should put themselves in the shoes of minority voters and acknowledge that black and Hispanic Americans do have a different experience than white Americans. Republicans should take this into account and consider how certain messages will sound to minority voters.
Guilt by association is real. Conservatives should temper their enthusiasm for the defense of people like George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson. Springing to the defense of alleged murderers, especially before all the facts are known, is just as wrong as calling for their heads. Conservatives should also distance themselves from racists such as Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling. These people have the freedom to spout racist nonsense, but they don’t have the freedom to duck the consequences.
Conservatives should also refrain from pointing out that Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the other race baiters are the real racists. It’s obvious, but also irrelevant, that there is a double standard.
The biggest stumbling block for Hispanics is immigration. The Tea Party fringe that insists on deportation and no “amnesty,” by which they mean any immigration reform, seems bent on driving Latinos permanently into the Democratic camp. These opponents of “amnesty” claim not to the see the problems in the current system in which businesses and farms depend on immigrant labor, but under which legal immigration can take decades.
The next step for Republicans is to show up. Republican candidates should make frequent visits to ethnic neighborhoods and listen to the voters there. This should not merely be an election year exercise. They should forge long-term relationships with community leaders. It is harder to paint a Republican as an evil racist if the people already know and trust him. Minority voters won’t vote for Republicans if Republican candidates don’t show up to ask for their votes.
Finally, Republicans should find out where a majority Americans agree with them and oppose the Democrats. An October 2014 Gallup poll found that the top three issues for voters were the economy (17 percent), dissatisfaction with government (16 percent) and unemployment/jobs (10 percent). These were the only issues to rank in double-digits and, coincidentally, a separate Gallup poll found that voters favor Republicans on these issues. These are the issues that Republicans should be talking about.
While Republicans should not mimic the Democratic ploy of making separate promises to different demographic groups, they should target campaign messages to different groups. While it is true that a rising tide lifts all boats and that conservative principles would benefit the nation as a whole, Republicans can no longer simply spin out a generic message and wait for minority voters to flock to their banner.
The best strategy may be to take the advice of economist Arthur Brooks, who wrote in the Wall St. Journal that conservatives must make their policies personal to voters instead of railing against abstract ideas and things. By connecting with voters on a personal level and explaining how conservative ideas can help the poor, Brooks says, “Conservative leaders will be able to stand before Americans who are struggling and feel marginalized and say, ‘We will fight for you and your family, whether you vote for us or not’—and truly mean it.”
This means that conservatives should spend less time talking about abstract ideas and social issues. Republicans must deemphasize issues like abortion, marriage and even the repeal of ObamaCare. They should completely stop talking about things like amnesty, impeachment, and birth certificates. At best these issues are divisive. At worst, they alienate voters.
What Republicans should spend more time talking about how is Democratic policies hurt real people and their families, playing to their advantage on the economy and jobs. Republican candidates should stand with the unemployed who have been unable to find jobs in the Obama economy, the family breadwinner struggling to support a family on less than he made in 2008, the college graduate with no employment prospects and the cancer patient whose health insurance policy was canceled due to the Affordable Care Act. Republicans should make an emotional connection with voters by putting names and faces to real effects of the Obama agenda.
When the Republicans win control of the Senate, passing immigration reform unilaterally should be a top priority. If President Obama chooses to veto Republican immigration reform, the Democrats might well incur the wrath of Hispanic voters, while the Republicans could, for once, be the party of “si’.” Democrats promised immigration reform for six years, but didn’t deliver. This leaves the GOP with an opportunity. One need look back no further than 2004, or even more recently to Chris Christie in New Jersey and Rick Perry in Texas, to see that a conservative can win Hispanic votes.
With respect to millennials, emphasizing jobs and playing down social issues may help the GOP since younger voters tend to be more liberal on social issues, but may lean conservative on size and role of government. Removing Obama from the ballot may help as well. Potential Democratic candidates such as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren lack the president’s hipness and youth appeal. In the pre-Obama elections, young voters were more closely divided. George W. Bush even tied the demographic with Al Gore in 2000.
Republicans don’t have to change their principles or write off entire demographics to the Democrats, but neither will these groups simply fall into the GOP camp by default. To win these voters, Republicans must show up, listen to their concerns, and convince them that conservative ideas will make their lives better.
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