GOP considers rebranding message, demographics
HARRISBURG, Pa. — There was a particular moment this election season when Clarke Cooper says he began to see the tide turn in the Republican Party.
OUTREACH: The Republican Party may be up for rebranding to reach the demographics that helped President Barack Obama get re-elected.
It was at the outset of the 2012 election cycle, when the National Republican Congressional Committee announced the first 10 candidates it would champion.
“There were racial minorities, there were more women, a gay guy, and some religious minorities, all in that first tranche that was pushed out by the party,” Cooper said. “That was a smart thing to do.”
But it was only a start.
Cooper is the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Log Cabin Republicans, a national grassroots group for gay and lesbian Republicans.
After the GOP’s Election Day defeats, Cooper and many others are calling for the Grand Old Party to update its messaging, open up the tent and break down stereotypes.
Winning future elections may depend on it.
In this year’s presidential race, President Barack Obama won 93 percent of the black vote, 71 percent of the Hispanic vote and 60 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29, according to National Election Pool exit polls conducted for major news outlets. The president also received 76 percent of the vote from gay, lesbian and bisexual voters, compare with 22 percent who voted for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Romney took 59 percent of the white voting bloc.
Cooper said these figures as indicators for change. The messages aren’t getting through to all populations.
“I’m one of a chorus of Republicans that have said, ‘Anything positive regarding economic freedom or reduction of the deficit or eliminate the scope of government was drowned out by things that were directly or perceived as being anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-immigration,’” Cooper said.
William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution research organization, who previously researched Pennsylvania’s political geography, said that if Republicans had done more to sway young and minority voters, they could’ve closed the gap — if not taken the race.
In Pennsylvania, for example, Romney did very well with older, white voters, Frey said. But even in a state where around 83 percent of residents identify as white, that wasn’t enough for him to win the state’s 20 electoral votes.
The Hispanic population is one demographic frequently cited as a community where Republicans could find new supporters. In 2004, Hispanics made up about 8 percent of all voters. That figure is 10 percent today.
But Republicans aren’t seeing increasing support from this growing community, where policies and messages from Democrats appear to be winning out. In 2004, 44 percent of Hispanics voted for President George W. Bush, compared with 27 percent who voted for Romney.
Relying on older, white voters does secure the Republican Party’s central base, Frey said. But that won’t always be the case.
“Ten years from now, if they’re still relying on older whites, they’ll be blown out of the water,” Frey said. “They won’t be close at all.”
In Pennsylvania, the case is still developing. Frey, an Allentown native, said the state’s largest growth occurs on the eastern part of the state, from Philadelphia through Lehigh Valley and up to the New York state border.
“That’s the part of the state that’s growing most rapidly and that’s becoming more racially and ethnically diverse,” he said.
The question turns to what Republicans need to do to attract those voters.
For Justin Murff, it’s all about the messaging.
Murff is the national political director for the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, an arm of the party dedicated to getting Republican ideas out to Hispanic communities. He, himself, is not Hispanic. But as a former campaign strategist in Texas, he plainly asserts the GOP, on the whole, does a “very poor job” of reaching out to the Hispanic community.
Murff said that in Texas, grassroots door-to-door politicking helped turn blue precincts red in statehouse districts.
He said it’s frustrating to see an entire population not acknowledged, and this, Murff said, is the wrong approach.
“Hispanics are Americans,” he said. “They have a role in the political process, and they have a role in the Republican Party.”
Longtime political consultant and commentator in Pennsylvania Charlie Gerow, CEO of consulting group Quantum Communications, said the party does not have to change its principles on limited government and individual liberty to appeal to new voters.
A self-described “old-style conservative” who has served as a delegate at the Republican National Convention, Gerow said winning the majority may require welcoming more ideas into the fold and accommodating people who don’t agree on every issue.
It’s not about getting 100 percent of voters to agree, he said. It’s about getting that 51 percent.
“We can be a very, very happy and comfortable minority, or we can be a somewhat uncomfortable, at times, tense majority, and you get to take your pick,” he said.
This change can start through candidate selection, said Cooper from the Log Cabin Republicans. And it’s already happening.
A Massachusetts candidate for U.S. House of Representatives, Richard Tisei is gay and pro-choice and served in the state Legislature during Romney’s tenure as governor.
Tisei was one of those first 10 candidates NRCC backed. He gained support from House Republican leaders, including a check from the PAC connected to Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan.
Though Log Cabin Republicans have long been running for local offices, this was new ground.
“What was a new threshold for us, and still noteworthy, is to have the party get behind and really support a candidate not only spiritually but with actual resources,” Cooper said.
Only two openly gay Republican candidates have served in the House, Steve Gunderson from Wisconsin and Jim Kolbe of Arizona.
This time around, Tisei lost the election to incumbent U.S. Rep. John Tierney, D-District 6.
But his candidacy was indicative of what may come, Cooper said.
He said he believes more nontraditional candidates will run on Republican tickets in mid-term elections — with the support of the party.
“A conservative … was able to say to the party leadership, ‘Look, I’ll vote to support the repeal of Obamacare, I don’t believe in state-mandated insurance purchasing. However, I, as a gay man, I’m going to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act,’” Cooper said.
More of this, Cooper said, will translate into a bigger base.
But even if such candidates win support within their party, a different color elephant lurks in the party’s corner: The party’s reputation among the voters.
Researchers at University of Southern California and the University of Virginia examined the link between moral stereotypes and both major political parties earlier this year.
Stereotypes of “typical” conservatives and liberals are based on moral differences between the parties. But the study, conducted through a survey of more than 2,000 voters, found that the stereotypes are more polarized than the actual differences, causing the illusion of a larger divide than may exist.
From the study:
“The ideological ‘culture war’ in the U.S. is, in part, an honest disagreement about ends (moral values that each side wants to advance), as well as an honest disagreement about means (laws and policies) to advance those ends. But our findings suggest that there is an additional process at work: partisans on each side exaggerate the degree to which the other side pursues moral ends that are different from their own.”
As the study points out, opposite parties are sometimes painted as “downright evil” by those on the other side. Examples can be found on any given day on television or social media, though voters may be more deluged during election season.
Consequentially, these stereotypes create “less and less possibility for productive compromise,” said Jesse Graham, a psychology professor at USC and lead researcher in the study.
Today’s social media culture doesn’t help the situation, Graham said.
“Part of the problem is that social media allows us to further segregate into our own ideological camp, and to ‘turn off’ or block those who are posting opinions from the other side,” Graham wrote in an email to PA Independent. “This creates an echo chamber effect, where we only get exposed to information that suits our partisan biases — and chief among these would be exaggerated caricatures of people on the other side.”
But partisans can shake such stereotypes once they confront them, Graham said.
“Knowing what these stereotypes are (for example, that conservatives don’t care at all about suffering or unfairness) can help partisans combat them by showing where they are wrong,” Graham wrote.
If admitting the existence of a problem is the first step to solving it, the GOP may be on its way. None, though, said it so plainly as outgoing lawmaker, Virginia U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, during a Republican social gathering last week at the Capitol Hill Club.
“Some of the groups that would have agreed with us on a lot of issues, they don’t even look at us. We scare them,” Davis was quoted as saying.
But first impressions are tough to shake.
For example, Democrats rallied against Republicans and a labeled “War on Women,” with the likes of comments from former Missouri Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Akin on “legitimate rape,” giving plenty of ammo for liberals and potentially swaying undecided or independent voters who may have felt Republicans would threaten women’s issues.
Anastasia Przybylski is a co-founder of the Kitchen Table Patriots, a Pennsylvania-based grassroots tea party group. She said the GOP didn’t fight back against the War on Women rhetoric strong enough, that the messages coming from the left weren’t countered effectively.
She said she did not believe a repeal of Roe v. Wade would’ve happened in a Romney administration. And yet the fear of that happening, bolstered by news headlines and websites, may have swayed women to vote for Obama to protect their rights.
To battle these perceptions, Przybylski said Republican messaging should focus more on the concept of limited government and individual liberties. Under those ideas, discussions about abortion, birth control and other social issues can be turned over to the states.
Limited government messages also avoid targeting a racial or cultural minority by appealing directly to the pocketbook, she said. Przybylski said she believes this message would be more effective in attracting a broader base.
“When you pander to somebody, they know you’re pandering,” she said. “We need to go back to the core principles of limited government.”
Cooper, of the Log Cabin Republicans, knows about breaking down Republican stereotypes — his group is doing it from the inside out.
Cooper said the stereotype of the social conservative “old white man” Republican is damaging to the party’s ability to get its messages across to other groups. These perceptions aren’t always true — Cooper and his group are living proof you can be gay and Republican despite what social stereotypes suggest about the party.
Republicans, Cooper said, need a national party that reflects the makeup of the nation. This doesn’t mean abandoning social conservatives or any other wing of the party.
It means grassroots base-building. And it means walking the walk of individual liberty.
“The answer isn’t excising someone from the party, that’s what we’ve been fighting all along,” Cooper said. “The answer is going back to the coalition approach that’s been successful in the past. It’s just getting back to our roots and recognizing you can have within the GOP people who have different perspectives.”
He’s said he’s not the only one in the party who has pointed the following out to fellow Republicans: From a party advocating for individual liberty, it can come off as hypocritical to take votes or positions that are intrusive upon the individual or extend federal overreach in state or local government.
This is where Cooper said he sees embracing core principles as a way to change messaging and open up the party’s tent.
“We can remain true to our conservative principles, but we also have to be enlightened to the fact that if we’re going to follow those conservative principles, they need to be applicable across the board and not a la carte,” Cooper said.
Much like Tisei’s candidacy, there are glimmers of this happening. Cooper points out it was a bipartisan vote that repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010, allowing openly gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals to serve in the military.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom for the future. Pennsylvania Republicans were particularly successful in locking down 13 of 18 congressional districts. Republicans still control both chambers of the state Legislature, though they lost three statewide row offices.
Valerie Caras, spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, said the party is still evaluating what it can improve upon from this past election. But it will consider how to communicate its message to new groups.
Even though Pennsylvania has more registered Democrats, Republicans have found success among Pennsylvania voters, Caras said, citing the last midterm and gubernatorial election as an example.
“One thing we have to consider is not necessarily what our message is, because we’ve found our message is successful,” she said. “We just have to look at the way we communicate it.”
Alan Novak, former chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, has spent decades as a campaign strategist, and just as long observing the do’s and don’ts of campaigning in Pennsylvania and throughout the country.
While recently redrawn congressional maps played a role, the congressional wins are due to the candidates’ knowledge and connection with their districts, Novak said. Other Republicans may want to re-learn this lesson, he said: Connect to the district.
“The results say we need to do a better job,” Novak said of reaching Pennsylvania and national Republicans.
Novak points to President Obama’s campaign team as a textbook lesson on how to do it right. Democratic grassroots organizations were positioned where needed to connect with all different types of voters.
“As a tactician, I admire that,” he said. “Winning elections is what party leaders are supposed to do, and campaigns are supposed to do. And messaging is a part of it, tactics are a part of it and this was a very tactical election. In terms of votes on the board, Democrats did a great job.”
Novak said now is the time for party leaders to take a look at their strategy and understand what went wrong.
Victory can mistakenly validate strategy, anyway, he said.
“I can learn a lot more from somebody who didn’t vote for me, who didn’t support me, than I can from someone who did.”