As they worked through the language of their 2016 platform, delegates to the Republican National Convention commented over and over that this was to be seen as a marketing document designed to sell their party. What they produced is a far cry from what the party establishment thought was needed only a few years ago.
The platform that emerged over several days of deliberations here this week reinforced some of the party’s most conservative planks, rejected efforts to appeal forcefully beyond the GOP’s traditional base and, to the extent that it reflects the thinking of Donald Trump, is most noteworthy for including language to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
As a rule, platforms don’t seem to matter much. Few voters will search, find and read through the many pages of party doctrine — for either the Republicans or the Democrats, whose newly drafted platform reflects a significant left turn. Trump, as with some other previous nominees, will probably ignore it and carry on his campaign as he wishes. The document will be presented early next week, ratified and put on a shelf.
Yet platforms reflect the collective thinking of the party and its activists. The platform that was written here this week, but that has not yet been formally released, will be remembered chiefly as having reinforced a conservative shift that has taken place since the party’s 2012 defeat in the presidential race, and underscored the power of the constituency that fueled Trump’s victory in the nomination battle.
After Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama in 2012, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus ordered up an autopsy of what had gone wrong and what the party needed to do to avoid a third consecutive defeat in 2016. Much of the analysis that was produced dealt with mechanical issues, and Priebus has spent the past years trying to correct them.
What drew the most attention, however, was a frank appraisal, written from the perspective of the party establishment, of the state of the GOP coalition and what needed to be done to correct deficiencies in the party’s outward face to the electorate.
“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,” said the report, called the “Growth and Opportunity Project. “It is a major deficiency that must be addressed.”
The report put special emphasis on finding ways to appeal more successfully to two groups of voters who are considered crucial to the party’s future success in presidential campaigns — Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the population; and young people.
“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 report said. “When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”
In the intervening years, and especially after the success of Trump, the party convening here in Cleveland is putting its emphasis on sending messages to constituencies far different than those highlighted in the autopsy report. With Trumpian language on trade and immigration, the platform document reflects the concerns of socially conservative Americans and of white working-class voters who have responded to Trump’s nativist and protectionist messages.
The 2016 platform turns much of what was recommended in the autopsy document on its head. Rather than reaching out, it draws the party inward, particularly on social and cultural issues and on immigration.
Trump’s wall sends a loud and clear message to the Hispanic community that is the opposite of what the 2013 RNC-sponsored autopsy report proposed. That report called for enactment of comprehensive immigration reform.
The possibility of enacting comprehensive reform, though still favored by some Republicans, died long before the 2016 campaign began. But in the presidential campaign, Trump, with his harsh talk about Mexicans and his determination to erect a border wall, moved the party ever farther from meaningful outreach to Hispanics.
By inscribing Trump’s proposal in the party platform, the party has acknowledged the strength of his core appeal as a candidate. But it also has taken the risk of building a rhetorical and policy wall between the GOP and the Latino community that could last for years. A newly released Univision survey shows Trump with the support of just 19 percent of Hispanic voters, lower even than the 27 percent Romney won in 2012.
In the time since the RNC’s autopsy report was issued, the politics of same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues moved dramatically. Today, same-sex marriages are legal, thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling. Transgender issues have risen to prominence, and with that change has come a backlash. The Republican platform takes clear stands on these issues — in opposition to the changes taking place.
Public opinion on same-sex marriage has moved significantly over the past few years, and one thing that’s clear from all the survey research is that younger voters support such unions in higher numbers than older voters. That’s true across the population, regardless of party. Nonetheless, every effort to soften the platform language on LGBT issues was rebuffed, both at the subcommittee level and later in the full committee’s deliberations.
The rejections came despite a plea for understanding from Rachel Hoff, an openly gay delegate from the District of Columbia. Hoff, a member of the platform committee, told other delegates that she was not asking for the party to change its position opposing the high court’s decision on same-sex marriage, only to find a way to acknowledge more clearly that there were differing views within the party.
There could be one more attempt next week to jettison some of the most contentious language in the platform, but it is likely to get no farther than the efforts during the platform committee’s deliberations.
The document that has emerged from the platform committee’s deliberations now reflects views of the two candidates who finished one-two in the nominating process — Trump and his cross-cutting, white, working-class supporters, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and his religious and social conservative loyalists.
Both the Trump and Cruz constituencies are important to the party’s hopes in November and to its future. But so, too, are those groups that were highlighted in the 2013 autopsy. The delegates to the 2016 convention did not find a way to reconcile the two. That remains unfinished business for a fractured Republican Party.
Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. follow Dan @danbalz