CLEVELAND – As it officially puts Donald Trump atop its ticket this week, the Grand Old Party is rushing headlong toward an unofficial label it is desperately trying to avoid: the White People’s Party.
With his harsh tone toward Mexicans, his proposed ban on Muslims from entering the United States and his seeming tolerance of white nationalist groups, the reality TV star is painting Republicans ever further into a demographic corner that could threaten their viability as a national political organization in the coming decades.
“If we don’t expand our ability to reach voters, particularly Hispanic voters, and the rising tide of Asian voters, we’re going to have a generational wipeout,” said Florida’s Rick Wilson, a Republican political consultant and longtime Trump critic.
Trump’s language and positions appear to be translating into dismal poll numbers already, particularly in those states where it could matter most. In Florida, a June poll found Trump receiving 20 percent support from Latino voters compared to 68 percent for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
And in Ohio and Pennsylvania, a Marist College poll for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal released last week actually showed Trump with zero percent support among African-American voters.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way at all. Just three years ago, the Republican National Committee published a report detailing the relentless demographic changes the country was undergoing, and how the party’s very existence was at stake if it failed to expand beyond its traditional base.
“If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity,” wrote the authors of the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” giving the example of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney’s poor showing with Latinos. “If Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
Many Latino Republicans are already doing so, thanks to Trump. One California delegate said he tried to give away guest passes to the Cleveland convention to Mexican-American friends – longtime GOP donors from the Los Angeles area – as a way to get more black and brown faces in the Quicken Loans Arena. He was unable to find a single taker, he said, on condition of anonymity to speak freely about his party’s nominee. “Not even one,” he said.
But Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort said the candidate’s appeal would transcend race and ethnicity. “We think that the message that Donald Trump is talking about ― jobs, security, trying to bring law and order to a community with no preference to any particular ethnic group ― we think those messages will resonate,” he said at a Sunday news conference, and then predicted: “We do think that our Hispanic support is growing. ... I expect to do much better that Romney did in 2012 in the Hispanic community.”
Other Republicans remain unpersuaded.
One of the authors of that 2013 report, Ari Fleischer, said Trump’s nomination will at least test the validity of their conclusions. “Certainly Donald Trump has gone in the opposite direction from what we recommended,” said the former top aide to President George W. Bush. “If he loses, he’ll give even more credence to our report.”
Republicans’ Long, Uneasy History With Race
At Trump rallies across the country, even in racially diverse communities like San Pedro, California, and Fairfax County, Virginia, black or brown faces are few and far between.
At the Iowa State Fair last summer, two middle-aged white men who had just dropped kernels of corn into Trump’s jar at a makeshift straw poll there discussed how important it was to end both illegal and legal immigration because the newcomers’ children would be American citizens ― and by dint of their ethnicity further change this country. (Neither wanted to share his name with a reporter.)
At a June Trump campaign event in St. Clairsville, Ohio, 62-year-old Brenda Johnson also railed against immigrants, and explained how much it upset her to hear them speak in other languages. “They should speak English in public,” she said. “It’s fine if they want to speak in their own language at home.”
Such attitudes, of course, are not new among voters, and Trump is certainly not the first Republican presidential candidate to use racially tinged language and identity politics.
That began in earnest in 1968, when Richard Nixon took advantage of Southern Democrats’ anger over President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act to make inroads into the Deep South. While openly segregationist George Wallace ran a third-party campaign that year and won five of those states, Nixon’s use of the “Southern Strategy” led to what aide Kevin Phillips called “the beginning of a new Republican era” in his 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority.
It was a dramatic reversal for a party that was founded to abolish slavery a century earlier, and which through the first half of the 20th century consistently supported civil rights laws for African-Americans. But from 1968 forward, Republican presidential candidates, to varying degrees, used phrases that appealed to working-class white voters who believed that Democrats were, at the expense of poorer white people, favoring blacks and other minorities.
Nixon’s appeal for “law and order,” Ronald Reagan’s story of the Cadillac-driving welfare mom, and George W. Bush’s refusal to condemn South Carolina’s display of the Confederate battle flag from atop its state capitol all spoke to a constituency that delivered Republicans the White House in every election between 1968 and 1988, with the exception of the post-Watergate election in 1976, when former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter won narrowly.
But in 1992, California flipped from Republican to Democratic, as Mexican-American voters responded to Republican efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants. Republicans quickly learned that the “Solid South” no longer gave them a lock on the Electoral College.
In the subsequent years, Florida, then Colorado and Virginia, also came into play in presidential elections as their minority populations increased ― to the point where demographics now actually favor a Democrat over a Republican.
Ironically, Trump’s racially polarizing candidacy could actually accelerate that shift. North Carolina, which President Barack Obama narrowly won in 2008 but narrowly lost four years later, currently is leaning slightly toward Clinton. Georgia could also wind up closer than the 8-point win for Mitt Romney in 2012, while traditionally red Arizona, with its large Mexican-American population, could actually break for Clinton.
As it happens, this was exactly the sort of demographic change the party warned about in its 2013 report. Between 2000 and 2012, the Republican presidential candidate got between 87 and 88 percent of his total votes from white people. But as the electorate has gradually become less white, white votes are no longer enough to win. Only once in the past six elections has the GOP candidate won the popular vote: 2004, when George W. Bush took 43 percent of the Hispanic vote. In the 2012 election, Romney won only 27 percent of that vote.
“The nation’s demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become,” the report stated. “According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2050, whites will be 47 percent of the country while Hispanics will grow to 29 percent and Asians to 9 percent.”
Minority Outreach Undone By Trump
At the RNC’s meeting in Boston the summer after the 2012 loss to Obama, party Chairman Reince Priebus fairly scolded Romney for suggesting during the primary season that immigrants living in the country illegally should “self-deport.”
“Using the word ‘self-deportation’ ― I mean, it’s a horrific comment to make,” Priebus said. “It’s not something that has anything to do with our party. But when a candidate makes those comments, obviously it hurts us.”
For party leaders, the need to adapt was not only for the next presidential election, but for the presidential elections in decades to come. Mainstream Republicans got behind a comprehensive immigration overhaul, as the “autopsy” recommended, and watched it pass the Senate only to founder in the House as the party’s disproportionately Southern, disproportionately working-class base revolted.
In perhaps the most ominous sign of where things were headed, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), a co-sponsor of the bill in that chamber, reversed himself and opposed it as he positioned himself for his presidential run.
The rejection of the party’s received wisdom was complete when Trump in his announcement speech called undocumented immigrants from Mexico “rapists” (although he allowed that some might be good people) and promised to build a wall along the southern border. In the coming months, he vowed to ban Muslims from entering the United States as a response to terrorist attacks, declined at first to criticize former KKK leader David Duke, and most recently defended the use of an image that resembled the Star of David badge that Nazis forced Jews to wear in Hitler’s Germany before they systematically rounded them up and murdered them.
Even this week, when offered the opportunity to speak at the NAACP conference in Cincinnati ― a mere 30 minutes away on his 757 jet ― Trump declined, even though he was afforded the flexibility to speak at the time and day of his choosing. Every recent GOP nominee has spoken at the conference, going back to George W. Bush in 2000.
The promise to “take our country back” and “make America great again” appeals to lesser-educated whites who wish for a return to an era when a college degree was not necessary to earn a middle-class living and the population was overwhelmingly white, said Alan Abramowitz, a demographer at Emory University. “He’s trying to appeal to a sense of displacement, a sense of being left out, of being left behind,” he said. “Elect me and we’ll finally have a leader who will undo all these terribles.”
Priebus, in the wake of a new poll showing Trump’s overall standing with Latinos down to 14 percent, told Fox News on Sunday that Trump appreciates the need to do better.
“I know Donald Trump’s going to be doing a Hispanic engagement tour coming up soon,” Priebus said. “He understands we need to grow the party ― it’s the party of the open door, tone, rhetoric, spirit ― all those things matter when communicating to the American people.”
That statement, though, is somewhat of a departure from the party’s typical response since Trump became the presumptive nominee, which is to ignore the Growth and Opportunity Project report and the long-term strategy behind it. Instead, they focus on the tactics for this coming election, and how, despite everything, Trump can still triumph by winning big among white working-class voters in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio and Wisconsin.
RNC members and officials, in fact, even insist that Trump will exceed expectations among Latino and African-American voters, his rhetoric to date and current polling notwithstanding.
Helen Aguirre Ferre, who took over as head of Hispanic communications after the previous director quit because of her distaste for Trump, said Latino voters are interested in more than just immigration, and that many will be receptive to his message on jobs and national security.
Even in her hometown of Miami, where two of the three Cuban-American members of Congress have disavowed Trump, Ferre said Trump has the potential to do well. She pointed to his 22 percent showing in Miami-Dade County, Rubio’s home, in the March 15 primary. “I think that speaks volumes,” she said, adding that Trump’s campaign will work hard to win over those Latino voters in November. “I think they’re waiting to be courted.”
And North Carolina’s Ada Fisher, one of only a handful of African-American RNC members, said Trump will exceed expectations with black voters, too. “I think Trump will do quite fine. I think he will do great things,” she said, showing off the “Make America Great Again” hat his campaign had given her. “I’ve been a supporter of Donald Trump since the beginning.”
To Florida consultant Wilson, the official party line on Trump ― from the idea that he will do well with minorities to the hope that he can drive up working-class white voter turnout enough to win ― is just plain silly, especially with Trump’s weakness with college-educated white voters and women voters generally.
“This is them trying to whistle past the graveyard, pretending like Donald Trump isn’t happening,” he said. “Math is math, it doesn’t negotiate.”
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims ― 1.6 billion members of an entire religion ― from entering the U.S.