GOP Might Just Stick with This "Party of White People" Thing

Since the 2012 election, most (not all, but most) Republicans have agreed that if they're going to remain viable in presidential elections in coming years, the party will have to broaden its appeal, particularly to Latino voters. There has been plenty of disagreement about how to go about this task. Especially over comprehensive immigration reform, which many Republicans see as too high a policy price to pay to achieve some uncertain measure of good will from those voters. But outside of conservative talk radio, there weren't many voices saying that they should junk the whole project. Every once in a while some voice from the past like Phyllis Schlafly would come out and bleat that the party should focus on the white folk who make up the party's beating heart, but to many it seemed like the political equivalent of your racist great aunt saying at Thanksgiving that she doesn't feel comfortable around those people.

But as immigration reform wends its tortured path through Congress, more mainstream Republicans are having second thoughts. In fact, significant backlash is brewing, not just to this bill but to the whole idea of Republicans working to appeal to minorities. Benjy Sarlin at MSNBC has an excellent article explaining how this backlash is spreading, noting that even some people who six months ago were blaming Mitt Romney's position on immigration reform for his loss are now saying that the only viable path to victory is getting turnout up among white voters.

I'll get to why this is a very bad idea in a moment, but the logic at work isn't completely crazy. After all, by now the Republican party going after minority votes is like the fast-food joint that puts a salad on its menu amid all the bacon cheeseburgers and chili fries. It's there so they can say they're offering something for people with different tastes, but they don't expect anyone to order it. And when Rush Limbaugh warns that a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants will create millions of new Democratic voters, he's probably right to a degree. Under the bill the Senate passed it would be 13 years before any undocumented immigrant could earn citizenship and vote, but as Sarlin discusses, the argument some Republicans make that Latinos are "natural conservatives" has always been weak.

After every election, a significant number of people within the losing party argue that the problem wasn't one of persuasion but one of turnout. They just didn't get enough of their voters to the polls, so they don't have to change what they're arguing. There's often some truth to it; when only 50 to 60 percent of eligible voters are coming to the polls, turnout on your side could always be higher. But the problem the GOP now faces is that the way you relate to one group of voters affects how other voters perceive you.

This was something George W. Bush and Karl Rove understood well when they built his 2000 campaign. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" consisted mostly of things like pulling African-Americans on stage with him and putting lots of pictures of Latinos on his web sites. It got him a few extra votes among minorities, but that was always just a bonus. The real target was moderate white voters, who saw it and learned, in the phrase reporters repeated over and over, that Bush was "a different kind of Republican." He wasn't like those mean-spirited old white guys who seemed to dominate the GOP, and they'd be comfortable voting for him.

By the same token, if you decide that you're going to focus your efforts on turning out the white vote, you won't only be sending a message to Latinos (and African Americans, and the fast-growing Asian American population) that you're not interested in them, you'll also be sending a message to moderate whites that your party might not be the kind of place they'd feel comfortable. This goes double for young white voters, who have grown up in a much more diverse culture than their parents and grandparents, and aren't going to be so hot on joining the Party of White People.

This is a dilemma for Republicans. Both paths are strewn with obstacles and dangers. Whichever one they choose, there's likely to be trouble.

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