After Mitt Romney’s resounding loss to President Obama in 2012, the Republican Party did some much-publicized soul-searching. The so-called “autopsy report” published by the Republican National Committee owned up to one glaring lesson: as the face of America continues to get browner, the party needed to extend its appeal past its traditional base of older white men or face obsolescence.
“It is imperative that the RNC changes how it engages with Hispanic communities to welcome in new members of our Party,” the report declared, later adding, “The Republican Party must be committed to building a lasting relationship within the African American community year-round, based on mutual respect and with a spirit of caring.”
Fast forward to 2016, when the party’s likely nominee is an old, white billionaire who launched his campaign by denigrating immigrants and cemented his popularity by calling for a ban on Muslims.
So what happened to the minority outreach that was supposed to be the core of the new Republican Party?
Donald Trump’s dominance of the Republican primary isn’t a fluke. It represents an alternative path in the war for the GOP’s identity — a vision of the party’s future that’s a lot whiter and more hateful than the minority outreach plan.
‘The Party of Lincoln’
After Trump reluctantly disavowed the latest white nationalist to endorse him, Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, the party attempted some damage control.
The RNC released a video Monday featuring African Americans explaining why they identify with the Republican Party (the answer: self-empowerment). “We are strong, we are determined, we are overcomers, we are committed, we are loyal,” a woman concludes. “We are the GOP.”
Newly-minted Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) chimed in Tuesday on Trump’s partial embrace of Duke. “If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices,” Ryan said. “This is the party of Lincoln.”
This is the Party of Lincoln. We believe all people are equal in the eyes of God and our government. https://t.co/Ft2sCrQ9CX
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) March 1, 2016
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also made sure to express his disapproval of Trump. “There has been a lot of talk in the last 24 hours about one of our presidential candidates and his seeming ambivalence about David Duke and the KKK, so let me make it perfectly clear,” McConnell said. “That is not the view of Republicans who have been elected to the United States Senate, and I condemn his views in the most forceful way.”
Yet the RNC has pledged to back Trump “110 percent” if he wins the nomination, a near certainty after Tuesday night.
There’s a strategy behind this apparent cognitive dissonance.
Before the “Party of Lincoln,” there was “whites-only.”
After George W. Bush’s narrow and contested win in 2000, white nationalist blogger Steve Sailer argued in a column called “GOP Future Depends on White Vote” that the party should focus on maximizing white voters rather than pour resources into minority outreach. That strategy hinged on fearmongering about immigrants stealing jobs to win over union-loyal white workers from the Democratic Party. It caught on quickly in white nationalist circles within the Republican Party.
The Sailer Strategy enjoyed a resurgence after Obama’s re-election, in direct opposition to the RNC’s warning about minority voters. A sect of the GOP base, led by prominent conservative icons like Phyllis Schlafly and Pat Buchanan, rejected the idea that the math required the party to accommodate non-white voters. Instead, they said, the GOP should encourage white voters to see themselves as a united “tribe” with the same interests, regardless of whether they live in Mississippi or California.
Buchanan even called for a renewal of the infamous Southern Strategy, which Republicans used to alienate Southern whites from the Democratic Party after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. This time, Buchanan argued, the strategy could be deployed against immigrants rather than black people.
Enter Donald Trump. His campaign launch in June immediately identified Mexican immigrants as the enemy.
“They are sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us,” he said. “They are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime, and they’re rapists.”
Before that comment, Latinos and whites viewed Trump similarly. Afterward, his popularity with white voters immediately shot up. His favorability among Latinos tanked. The Sailer Strategy may not have been formally embraced by the RNC, but white voters have flocked to the Republican Party, particularly since the election of the first black president. The Tea Party swept Congress in 2010 on a wave of support from older white voters. Romney won a record share of white voters in 2012.
The Myth Of The Missing White Voters
The whites-only strategy may win Trump the nomination, but it’ll be a harder sell in the general election. The “missing white voters” that Sailer bases his theory on don’t actually seem to exist. And the pool of white voters just keeps shrinking.
Even if Trump can increase Romney’s command of white voters in November, he would still need at least 42 percent of the Latino vote to secure the presidency — close to double the number who voted Republican in the last presidential election, according to Latino Decisions.
Trump’s claims that Latinos love him don’t bear out in reality. He has alienated Latinos by historic margins, and strongly negative views of Trump have only grown more intense among Latino voters throughout his campaign. According to a Washington Post-Univision poll, Trump would lose Latinos to Hillary Clinton by an even larger number than Romney lost in 2012.
Meanwhile, the party’s official plan to win over Latinos, African Americans, women, and younger people never really took off. Rather than adjust Republican policy platforms to fit key priorities for these voter groups, party officials have generally insisted they simply need to speak their language. Policy-wise, the GOP’s attempt to pitch minorities has gone off the rails. Since the autopsy report, Congressional Republicans have sabotaged immigration reform, pushed voter suppression measures aimed at minorities, restricted contraceptive access, and blamed poverty on “inner city” laziness.
“I think that people are upset with government, I think they’re upset with both parties…Donald Trump’s tapping into that,” Priebus said back in August. “I actually think it could be quite good for our party because I think what you’re seeing is a lot of people people that were frustrated with politics are saying, ‘Well maybe I’ve got an outlet here.’ And if they’re coming and tuning into our debate tomorrow night and getting involved in our party, I think that that ultimately could be very helpful.”