by Stuart Anderson, Forbes
In a new book, 2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America, veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres argues that given demographic trends, Republicans need to attract more minority voters or face Democrats winning the White House in 2016 and on into the foreseeable future. Ayres is founder and president of North Star Opinion Research and has consulted for high level Republican candidates and conservative organizations.
Below is an interview I conducted with Ayres to discuss his book and Republican political fortunes in America’s new demographic reality.
Stuart Anderson: The stakes in the 2016 presidential election are high. The next president will almost certainly decide the direction of the Supreme Court, whether current trends in U.S. foreign and economic policy will continue, and everything from health care policy to even the Internet. You seem to argue that Republicans may be handing the 2016 and future presidential elections to the Democrats unless something fundamentally changes in the Republican party’s approach on immigration and its outreach to minority voters. Is that a fair summation of your book?
Whit Ayres: The demographics in our country are changing so rapidly – with whites declining and non-whites increasing about three percentage points each presidential election – that it becomes exceedingly difficult to win a majority of the popular vote just by increasing the share of white vote going to the Republican candidate. Romney won 59 percent of whites but only 17 percent of non-whites in 2012. If the 2016 Republican nominee gets no more of the non-white vote than Romney, then he will need 65 percent of the white vote to win. That is a level reached only once in the last half century, by Ronald Reagan in 1984 in the greatest electoral landslide in recent history. It makes far more sense – in 2016 and certainly for elections after that – for Republicans to focus on dramatically increasing their share of the non-white vote, especially among Hispanics who are the fastest growing minority group.
Anderson: Mitt Romney won 59% to 39% among white voters in the 2012 presidential election. But you write, “Romney’s landslide among white voters nationally is distorted by his huge margins among whites in deep red states.” Can you elaborate on that? Does it mean that simply expanding the number of white voters for the GOP is not a viable strategy?
Ayres: Trying to gain a larger and larger share of a smaller and smaller proportion of the electorate is a losing strategy. That is especially true when you realize that Romney did not gain even 59 percent of the white vote in numerous swing states with a treasure trove of Electoral College votes: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, New Hampshire.
Anderson: How do you respond to those who say it’s hopeless for Republicans to get Hispanic votes, so presidential candidates should just focus on the base?
Ayres: That assertion is contradicted by the facts. George W. Bush won 44 percent of Hispanic votes nationally and a majority of Hispanic votes in the Sunbelt in 2004. Senator Marco Rubio and former Senator Mel Martinez won a majority of Hispanic votes in Florida, and numerous Texas Republicans have performed very well in the Hispanic community including Governor Rick Perry and Senator John Cornyn. Republicans can win many Hispanic voters with the right tone, the right policies, and the right outreach.
Anderson: The book cites the 2006-2007 debate over President Bush’s immigration reform proposal and its ultimate demise as a turning point. You write, “The idea that Republicans can rip into illegal immigrants without antagonizing Hispanic voters is delusional. Consequently it should surprise no one that the Democratic Party identification among Hispanic registered voters ballooned from 21 percentage points over Republicans in 2006, before the immigration reform debate, to 39 percentage points by 2008 after the immigration bill collapsed.” That would seem to belie the notion that what Republicans say or do on immigration doesn’t matter very much to Hispanic voters.
Ayres: It does belie that notion, as does any focus group of Hispanic voters. Harsh attacks on illegal immigrants are viewed by many Hispanics as attacks on their entire community. Once Republicans set up an “us versus them” mentality, Hispanic-American citizens quite understandably believe that Republicans just do not like them. Tone matters, and the tone used by some Republicans on immigration since 2004 has pushed many Hispanics into the waiting arms of Democrats.
Anderson: At least one likely Republican presidential candidate has said if elected he would prohibit immigrants from sponsoring any relatives except for a spouse or minor child for legal immigration, banning even adult children and the immigration of their parents. How can such a candidate appeal to Hispanic or Asian voters if he is saying your close family members are not welcome in the United States? Doesn’t that present an obvious line of attack for any Democratic candidate, including in Spanish language or other media?
Ayres: It does present an obvious line of attack. Hispanic and Asian voters are not yet a lock for Democrats in presidential elections, unlike African-American voters. But positions like these will go a long ways to ensuring that 90 percent of all non-whites consistently vote Democratic. And if that happens, Republicans will never elect another president given the demographic trends at work in the country.
Anderson: You write that the Asian population of the United States is growing even faster than the Hispanic population, and few people likely realize Asians also went over 70 percent for Barack Obama in 2012. Is part of that collateral damage for the GOP from perceived anti-immigrant messages mostly directed against Hispanics?
Ayres: Yes. It’s hard to believe that Bob Dole won the Asian vote for President in 1996, yet Asians voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2012. A message perceived as hostile to one group of immigrants will be perceived as hostile by all immigrants.
Anderson: In Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada you cite a 40 percentage point gap favoring the Democrats among Hispanic voters on the question of whether a party “respects the values and concerns of the Hispanic community.” That implies the problem is larger than most people think and could make it difficult for even Senate candidates going forward in those and other states.
Ayres: That is part of the brand problem for Republican candidates in non-white communities in general and Hispanic communities in particular. While inclusive and welcoming Republican candidates can overcome the brand, the burden of proof is on them to do so.
Anderson: It doesn’t sound like any of this gets any easier for Republicans as time moves forward. You write, “Hispanics . . . constitute 19 percent of Americans age 20 to 49 and fully 25 percent of teenagers and children.”
Ayres: The math gets harder and harder for Republicans with each passing year. That’s why it’s so important for the Republican Party to nominate a transformational candidate in 2016 with a new message, a new tone, and a new appeal to the new America.