The Republican Party is supposed to be caught in an intractable dilemma: To mobilize its current base, the party must give voice to (reactionary) white America’s fears of demographic change — but to survive that change, it must make inroads with nonwhite voters.
According to this conventional wisdom, Donald Trump’s garish brand of white identity politics might have been potent enough to win the Electoral College in 2016 — but as the electorate grows progressively browner, Trumpism will prove untenable: A party whose standard-bearer calls immigrants “animals,” developing countries “shitholes,” and neo-Nazis, “very fine people,” will not be able to win a sufficient share of the nonwhite vote to remain a force in national politics. Republicans can try to delay the reckoning with voter-suppression tactics and racial gerrymanders. But eventually, change is gonna come.
This narrative still has much to recommend it. The Trump-era GOP does rely on outsize support from baby boomers (who are gradually dying) and white Americans (who are gradually becoming a smaller share of the electorate). And even today, the Republican coalition isn’t a majority one; the party owes its grip on power to our political system’s anti-majoritarian features.
And yet, the ascent of Trumpism has nevertheless challenged an assumption that few pundits ever found cause to question: That it would be impossible for the Republican Party to become more overtly racist — and more popular with nonwhite voters in key regions — at the same time.
The first challenge to this premise came on the day of Trump’s election, when exit polls suggested that the Republican nominee (who had argued that Mexican-American federal judges are inherently biased and that Latino immigrants are largely criminal) won a higher share of the nonwhite vote than Mitt Romney had in 2012. Still, exit polls are notoriously imprecise, and Trump’s margin of improvement with those demographics was small enough to be potentially illusory.
But the stability of president Trump’s job-approval numbers with black and Latino voters — in the face of his myriad “racially charged” remarks and policy proposals — lends credence to the idea that he isn’t actually any more toxic to nonwhite voters than Romney was — and might even be less so. Further, depending on how one reads the data, Trump might actually have become more popular with both black and Latino voters since taking office.
None of this would mean much in isolation. Trump’s xenophobic nationalism might not alienate as many nonwhite voters as many would have anticipated — but it still alienates enough to be a profound medium-term problem for his party.
The more promising development for Republicans (and thus, concerning one for Democrats) is how little Trump’s toxicity has impaired the GOP’s minority-outreach efforts at the state level.
The current Republican president botched the federal government’s response to a hurricane in Puerto Rico, thereby exacerbating a calamity that killed more than 1,000 American citizens. In the aftermath of that disaster, Trump told the Puerto Rican people that they should be thankful they hadn’t suffered a “real catastrophe like Katrina”; feuded with the mayor of San Juan; and privileged Texas over Puerto Rico in the distribution of emergency resources, despite the island’s far graver conditions.
And none of this has prevented the Republican Party’s Senate candidate in Florida from outpolling his Democratic rival with Puerto Rican voters. In June, a Florida International University poll of Puerto Ricans living in the Sunshine State found 55 percent had a positive view of current GOP governor (and Senate nominee) Rick Scott, a figure significantly higher than that of incumbent Democratic senator Bill Nelson.
More recent internal polling from Democratic organizations has found Scott’s approval rating with Latino Floridians to be 12 points higher than Nelson’s. Crucially, the GOP candidate’s strength in that polling is not limited to the state’s conservative Cuban community — Scott also leads among male and non-college-educated Puerto Ricans.
Meanwhile, in Maryland, Republican governor Larry Hogan is poised to win reelection this fall — on the strength of his support among African-American Democrats. As the Baltimore Sun reports:
A survey of 802 primary voters conducted for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore this month found what several other polls have also concluded: Hogan is pretty popular among voters of both parties.
But a close look at his approval ratings among the 402 Democratic primary voters surveyed reveals Hogan is significantly more popular among some of the demographic groups he least resembles.
The poll found Democrats who identify themselves as African-American back the governor by 6 percentage points more than their white counterparts - 61 percent versus 55 percent.
In Nevada, Republican governor Brian Sandoval has retained significant support among that state’s Latino voters, and Massachusetts Republican governor Charlie Baker appears to be solidly popular with just about all of the Bay State’s demographic groups.
To be sure, partisanship has long played less of a role in gubernatorial elections than in federal races. GOP governors’ durable support among nonwhite constituencies is therefore less surprising than Rick Scott’s strength among Puerto Ricans. But both phenomena testify to the Republican Party’s success in cultivating distinct (and distinctly, racially inclusive) regional identities, even as it embraces increasingly overt racism in its national messaging.
A recent Washington Post report on Scott’s popularity with Florida voters offers some insight into how the GOP is pulling this off:
Scott has also benefited from extensive outreach efforts by Republicans in Florida, including workshops for newly arriving Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens and can register to vote in Florida after the move, about how to navigate the basics of living in the state. Similar efforts are being made among Latinos in Nevada.
Organizers on the ground admit that the political environment sometimes makes persuading Latinos difficult.
“It was very emotional,” said Gary Berrios, the party’s director of Puerto Rican engagement in Florida, when asked about the Trump administration’s former “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of thousands of parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border this summer. But he said his team often tries to direct the discussion away from immigration policies.
“For Puerto Ricans, the important issues are a job, education and housing their families,” he said.
One potential lesson from this: There are a lot of voters in the U.S. who do not spend much time and energy following national politics. And if a state-level Republican Party organizes in their communities, and provides some basic services, many will be open to giving its local candidates their support — no matter their ethnicity.
Thus, local Democratic Parties must ensure that they are doing everything in their power to make such communities feel Team Blue’s investment in their well-being; making voters resent the GOP’s national leadership will not compensate for failing to make them admire the Democratic Party’s local one.
The stakes of fortifying the party’s natural advantage with these constituencies are high. After all, if Rick Scott can win a majority of the Puerto Rican vote — when the most prominent Republican in the country is a xenophobic demagogue who abetted the greatest disaster in Puerto Rico’s modern history — then who’s to say that the Republican Party can’t significantly diversify its voting base under the leadership of a kinder, gentler proto-fascist?