WASHINGTON, D.C. - The schism between the tea party faction and the Republican Establishment is not the most significant schism in the GOP coalition. The deeper problem is the disconnect between the congressional party and the presidential party.
The agenda and strategy of the congressional party under John Boehner and Mitch McConnell is nearly antithetical to what the party would do if it wanted to optimize its presidential prospects. It is a strategy that may fare well in the 2014 midterm elections, but it ignores the advice the party gave to itself after the drubbing it took in 2012.
That advice was simple: If you want to elect a Republican president, stop alienating minorities, women, young people and swing voters. But old habits die hard.
The textbook for that advice is a report commissioned by the Republican National Committee after the 2012 elections. Called the Growth & Opportunity Project (get it, GOP), it is a surprisingly blunt post-mortem and prescription.
“We are losing in too many places,” the report says. “Public perception of the Party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”
The RNC’s models of success are the Republican governors, who control 29 of the 50 capitals. “The other, the federal wing, is increasingly marginalizing itself, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.”
But it is the federal or congressional party that sets the national table for presidential elections. It’s instructive to look at the record of congressional Republicans in light of the report’s main points.
1. Minorities. Demographics are the Democrats’ great hope and Republicans’ great fear. As the GOP report notes:
“By 2050, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population could be as high as 29 percent, up from 17 percent now. The African American proportion of the population is projected to rise slightly to 14.7 percent, while the Asian share is projected to increase to approximately 9 percent from its current 5.1 percent. Non-Hispanic whites, 63 percent of the current population, will decrease to half or slightly less than half of the population by 2050.”
Hispanics are the big problem for the GOP. Mitt Romney took only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012. And he got 26 percent of the Asian vote.
Immigration is a crucial issue for those populations, obviously. Republicans have blocked comprehensive immigration legislation in this Congress. And last week, House Republicans, with a highly visible assist from Texas Senator Ted Cruz, cast a purely symbolic vote that would prevent President Barack Obama from granting asylum to the young undocumented immigrants sometimes called Dreamers.
The 2013 report noted, “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States… they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
It is worth noting that the demographic profile of congressional Republicans is not exactly a portrait of America. There are no blacks, no Asians and seven Hispanics. When Eric Cantor leaves Congress later this summer, every Republican in Congress will be a Christian.
2. Women and youth. Women made up 55 percent of the electorate in 2012 and Romney got just 44 percent of their vote. He lost among single women by 36 percent. That’s an electoral death sentence.
Among voters aged 18-29, the split was: Obama 60 percent, Romney 37 percent. “Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents,” reads the 2013 report.
There is no big touchstone issue like immigration for these groups but on a cluster of matters, congressional Republicans have positions less popular with women and young people.
Democratic, independent and single women, for example, do not share their vocal support of the Hobby Lobby decision. And opposition to abortion rights generally remains a huge divider.
Women and people 18-39 are far more supportive of raising the minimum wage than men and older people. Congressional republicans have opposed that.
There is a similar dynamic for gay marriage, which has heavier support from women and young people.
3. Image and messaging. One section of the GOP report is called “Some people say, ‘Republicans don’t care.’” It says:
“The perception, revealed in polling, that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party and its candidates on the federal level, especially in presidential years. It is a major deficiency that must be addressed….
Asked to describe Republicans, they [focus group of former Republicans] said that the Party is ‘scary,’ ‘narrow minded,’ and ‘out of touch’ and that we were a Party of ‘stuffy old men.’ This is consistent with the findings of other post-election surveys.”
According to the report, this turns off swing voters as well as women, minorities and young people. The staunchly conservative positions of the congressional GOP on abortion rights, minimum wage, immigration and gun control reinforce the “old white guy” message the report worries about.
One of the architects of the report was Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s first press secretary. He says the road to a more inclusive agenda will have to come from the next presidential nominee, not Congress.
“We never expected the change to be led by the House Republicans,” Fleisher says. “It’s an open question whether the potential 2016 candidates have gotten the message.”
Fleischer also warned that the Republicans likely success in the fall elections could be misleading. “A false narcotic will come out of the 2014 elections,” he said. “2016 is going to be nothing like 2014.”
The consensus among prognosticators right now is that Republicans will hold the House and have an excellent chance to take the Senate. But Fleischer points out that turnout is always less in midterms than presidential elections, and it is minorities and young people who tend not to show up in off years.
This year’s crop of Senate races is also skewed in the Republicans favor for idiosyncratic reasons. Many of the big states with big cities and minority populations (and lots of electoral votes) don’t have Senate elections: California, New York, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman points out that the states in this year’s “class” of Senate elections cast 67 million votes total in 2012 election; the states in the other two classes cast over 94 million votes each.
Demographics and state-level voting patterns are not going to be so kind to Republicans in 2016. The Growth and Opportunity Project report says:
“Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. States in which our presidential candidates used to win, such as New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida, are increasingly voting Democratic….
It has reached the point where in the past six presidential elections, four have gone to the Democratic nominee, at an average yield of 327 electoral votes to 211 for the Republican.
During the preceding two decades, from 1968 to 1988, Republicans won five out of six elections, averaging 417 electoral votes to Democrats’ 113.”
Over this 20-year period, activist Republicans who participated in primaries – the party base – grew more conservative than the party as a whole. But now the Republicans in the House and even the Senate well reflect that party base.
The outside groups – the Super PACs and 527s – that are buying unprecedented numbers of television ads this year further reinforce that more hard-core edge in the minds of voters. The RNC issued a warning about that as well:
“... Candidates and their parties no longer have the loudest voices in campaigns or even the ability to determine the issues debated in campaigns. Outside groups now play an expanded role affecting federal races and, in some ways, overshadow state parties in primary and general elections. As a result, this environment has caused a splintered Congress with little party cohesion so that gridlock and polarization grow as the political parties lose their ability to rally their elected officeholders around a set of coherent governing policies.”
All of that makes a challenging backdrop for the 2016 Republican presidential candidates.
The collision between the agenda of congressional Republicans and the “kinder, gentler” game plan the Republican National Committee recommends is likely to be a more formidable and enduring challenge than the tea party-GOP Establishment conflict that is grabbing attention now.