Politics & Policy

Minority Outreach: The GOP Must Do Better

Cruz campaigns in Goffstown, N.H., February 3, 2016. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

The Associated Press reported last week that Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas), if he were to become the GOP nominee, would focus primarily on turning out disengaged white voters, while aiming for very modest gains among minorities. In a plan detailed by a senior strategist, the Cruz campaign says that it aims to obtain only 30 percent of the Hispanic vote and 10 percent of the African-American vote, a mere 3 percent and 4 percent increase from 2012, respectively. They will allocate their resources to boosting turnout among more reliably Republican voters: whites.

Cruz is right to assume that Republicans have a growing command of the white vote, most notably among Catholics, who in the past decade have transitioned from tepid Democratic voters to swing voters to solidly Republican voters. This movement is especially important because Catholics are the single largest Christian faith in the U.S., making up 18 percent of the voting-age population, and they tend to vote more often than non-Catholics. This, coupled with a strong affinity for conservatism among Evangelicals, Mormons, and mainline Christians, spells trouble for Democrats who see their share of the white vote fading.

A full 75 percent of the American electorate is white, and as a population, are becoming more reliably Republican with each election cycle. In 2014, they voted for Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives by a 24-point margin, up from an eight-point margin in 2006. Most experts believe that Republicans win about two in every three white voters in the U.S., and in some places, that number is much higher. Democrats hoped to use attacks on Charles and David Koch to lure disaffected white voters back to their side, but, to date, that strategy hasn’t worked.

Even with the GOP performing so well among the white majority, Republicans have seen their portion of the minority vote steadily shrink, especially among groups whose numbers are increasing nationwide. They simply cannot rely exclusively upon white voters to push them over the top each election, and there’s plenty of proof: Republicans have won only two of the past six presidential elections.

The most obvious gap is among African-American voters. In 1972, former California governor Richard Nixon earned 18 percent of the African-American vote. Today, Republicans win the votes of between 6 percent and 10 percent of African Americans each election. 

Hispanics, who are America’s largest ethnic minority, with 55 million individuals, are 17 percent of the population, and they continue to fall away from the GOP, too. In 2004, Republican president George W. Bush won nearly half of the Hispanic vote (44 percent), a nine-point improvement from his 2000 performance with the ethnic group. In 2012, Governor Mitt Romney won 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.

There is no situation more troubling than the GOP’s deteriorating relationship with the Asian-American community.

The Republican share of these two groups suggests a poor outlook for the party, but there is no situation more troubling than the GOP’s deteriorating relationship with the Asian-American community. Asians represent the fastest growing demographic in the U.S., and they are expected to surpass Hispanics as the second-largest population group in the United States.

Just two decades ago, Republicans won 74 percent of the Asian-American vote. In 1992 and 1996, Asian Americans voted for President George H.W. Bush and Senator Bob Dole (R., Kansas), respectively. But in 2000, Republicans started to lose support to Democrats, and in 2012, 73 percent of self-identified Asian-American voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama over former Republican governor Mitt Romney.

Not all Republicans perform poorly among minority voters, however. The Republican nominee, whether it’s Cruz or any other candidate, should have the humility to learn from those who get it right.

For example, Governor Larry Hogan (R., Md.) conducted extensive outreach in his 2014 election, which contributed heavily to his surprise victory over sitting Democratic lieutenant governor Anthony Brown by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent. Hogan, who is married to a Korean American, featured his diverse family prominently throughout his campaign. He canvassed predominantly African-American neighborhoods. He addressed historically black fraternities.

His efforts paid off. Hogan won Baltimore County with 59 percent and even garnered 22 percent of the vote in the City of Baltimore, compared with the just 16 percent won by his Republican predecessor, Governor Bob Ehrlich. While a six-point gain in a minority-dense city in a deep-blue state might seem modest, such incremental achievements will give Republicans a shot at winning and retaining new voters.

Creating and sustaining positive relationships with minority communities takes time and effort, and no one knows that better than Representative Steve Pearce (R., N.M.). The six-term congressman represents a heavily Hispanic district that borders Mexico, and his successful outreach to those communities has served as a useful model for his Republican colleagues in Congress.

In 2012, Pearce earned 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, a 13-point increase over Governor Romney’s share nationally. While he laments that many Hispanic voters come with a pre-disposition to support Democrats’ big-government policies, he told the Wall Street Journal in 2013 that his tireless outreach has encouraged them to give him a second look. This includes crisscrossing a district the size of Florida, publishing his official Congressional website in both English and Spanish, and personalizing each interaction as a small-town mayor would.

Many Republicans erroneously conflate minority outreach with abandoning conservative values.

Many Republicans erroneously conflate minority outreach with abandoning conservative values. But neither Hogan nor Pearce vowed to compromise his conservative principles to win votes. Instead, they pledged to work cooperatively with minority communities and to always be responsive to their needs. Showing up was a good step — and one far too many Republicans won’t take with these groups. Demonstrating a real commitment to earning their votes made a big impression.

Republicans’ victories among minority communities don’t have to be limited to statewide and congressional elections. Now, more than ever, there is an opportunity for Republicans to make significant electoral gains. The Democrats have begun to take these constituents for granted, and, once in office, they’re not accomplishing what the voters have asked them to do.

According to one Madison Avenue advertising executive specializing in minority outreach, only $5 million of the $4.2 billion spent by all parties and supporting organizations in the 2012 cycle was directed to advertising for minority voters. This means that not only are Republicans failing in their efforts to connect with one-fourth of the American electorate, but Democrats aren’t doing it either.

With Democrats taking their minority voters for granted, it’s a perfect time for conservatives to ramp up their efforts. Start with more dedicated television and radio ads, greater emphasis on retail politics in minority communities, and forging relationships with faith and civic leaders within these groups. Republicans have had real success with this, and Cruz should know.

In his Senate election in 2012, Cruz won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote (his Texas colleague, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, won more than half of it in 2014), so he should know a little something about forging bonds in these communities.

It’s also disappointing to learn that Cruz, who is no stranger to the concept of Evangelism, would publicly articulate such low expectations for attracting new audiences. After all, his campaign relished his first-place showing in Iowa, despite his emphatic opposition to ethanol subsidies. Cruz, they say, was so convincing that voters in one of the country’s top agricultural states chose him over candidates who favored keeping the subsidy intact. Why don’t they think he would be equally persuasive with minority voters?

Even if Cruz does not win the GOP nomination, his staff’s inadvisable decision to release its electoral strategy is no help to the party in a general election. His campaign signaled to minority voters that Republicans aren’t breaking their backs to earn their votes, and that’s a very unhelpful contrast to the scores of organizations, including the Republican National Committee, who are boosting their efforts with them. His approach affirms what far too many minority voters think of the Republican Party: They just don’t care about us.

With limited campaign resources, turning out steady Republican voters, the vast majority of whom are white, is certainly vital. But, in a country with changing demographics, conservatives must commit to improving their relationships with underserved communities. That certainly doesn’t start with saying, “We don’t want your vote.”

— Ellen Carmichael is president of The Lafayette Company, a political-consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. She has served as a senior communications adviser for a Republican presidential campaign, members of Congress, and statewide elected officials. Follow her on Twitter @ellencarmichael.

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