On February 22nd, 2012 four GOP presidential candidates met on a debate stage in Mesa, AZ. If there was one striking takeaway from the event, from the four candidates on stage to the crowd in attendance it was the lack of diversity. All four of the remaining GOP presidential candidates are white males (Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann were the only two non-white male candidates once in the race) and the crowd was a sea of white faces.
The GOP’s lack of diversity is not a new problem. Since the dawn of the 20th century the GOP has never won the minority vote in any presidential or midterm election. The 2012 presidential election looks to be no different. The GOP’s fierce language on governmental social and economic equality programs, illegal immigration and even education appears certain to drive these voters into the waiting arms of an undeserving Democratic Party.
Until recently the GOP’s lack of diversity was not an issue. Elections were not won and lost on the minority vote. Instead they were won and lost on the swings of blue-collar, middle class whites. Since 1980 the GOP has had unparalleled success in courting this group. In 1980 Ronald Reagan was the first GOP president of the modern era to win these voters. In 1984 he won them again, even more decisively which led to these voters being called “Reagan Democrats.” Both HW and GW Bush followed up on Reagan’s successes with these voters. In 2008, even as John McCain was being crushed in the presidential election he was still winning these voters 57%-41%.
If there ever was an election that showcased the GOP’s diversity problem it was 2008. As the GOP was winning whites they were losing the minority vote by over 80%-20%. In the 2008 election the minority vote made up 24% of the populace (the highest in electoral history). This loss came after the 2004 presidential campaign where GW Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote, 10% of African-Americans and 40% of other minority voters.
Current estimates put the minority vote at being 24%-26% of the vote in 2012 (even bigger than 08). And thus the GOP finds itself in a bind. Most of the GOP’s recent electoral successes, including most recently 2010, came from winning blue-collar whites and upper class suburbanites (they lost these voters in 2008 as well). Unfortunately for the GOP, the issues that drive blue-collar voters to pull the lever for the GOP do not translate to minority voters doing the same. In fact, it likely makes minority voters pull the lever for Democrats.
The GOP hopes to court the growing minority vote, especially the increasing Hispanic and Asian vote through social issues and the economy. In 2004 many analysts attributed Bush’s successes with courting Hispanic voters to social issues and a softer stance on illegal immigration. Social conservatism the GOP can do, but a softer stance on illegal immigration not so much.
Since 2011 several GOP controlled states, most notably Arizona and Alabama, have passed strict illegal immigration laws. Right or wrong, these laws have caused the DOJ to come down on the states hard and Latino Rights activists to cry foul. Combine this with the flap over TX’s recent redistricting map (currently tied up in court) and the GOP is seriously in danger of becoming the “Anti-immigrant party.”
On the stump every current GOP presidential candidate has staked out a stance on illegal immigration. Libertarian Republican Ron Paul’s (TX) stance traditionally was to allow illegal immigration. That is until he realized it was a death knell to have that stance in the GOP primary. Rick Santorum is ardently anti-illegal immigration and has staked out a claim to being the farthest right on the issue. Mitt Romney did not put to rest the idea he supported mass deportations of illegals until recently. Newt Gingrich has voiced support for some sort of phased in citizenship period. All candidates do support some sort of path to citizenship but they disagree in terms of the details in how to make it happen.
The GOP cannot hope to win the presidential election with less than 30% of the Hispanic vote. That was the percentage John McCain received in 2008. But if Hispanic turnout increases in 2012 (not all say it will however) then the GOP would need to possibly win over 60% of the white vote. This would mean the GOP would not only have to overperform among blue-collar whites but also single, white women and upper class suburbanites (perhaps beyond 2010 levels). For this to happen the situation would need to dramatically improve in the GOP’ favor over the next several months.
Going forward the GOP continues to look likely to suffer from a diversity problem. The GOP does have a number of highly visible minority candidates such as Cuban-American Senator Marc Rubio (FL) and Governors Brian Sandoval (NV) and Susanna Martinez (NM). But having appealing candidates can only do so much to fight a national image and platform that simply does not appear to appeal to minorities. Until the GOP finds the right balance between appealing to minorities and its white base the party will continue to suffer from a diversity problem.