Republican Party leaders are planning a show of unity at their national… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)
TAMPA, Fla. — For Republicans, this week's national convention is a chance to put aside differences and give presidential nominee Mitt Romney a celebratory boost into the fall campaign.
But behind the harmonious images that Romney aides have worked hard to produce, Republicans face a frightening demographic future and a party civil war.
Polls show that the GOP is united today more by an intense desire to defeat President Obama than by enthusiasm for Romney. The former Massachusetts governor made it to the nomination after a long and bruising primary contest that exposed continuing strains within the party.
PHOTOS: Convention preparations
In Tampa, social and religious conservatives plan to flock to events with Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. Libertarians are rallying with Ron Paul. Newt Gingrich, one of several presidential contenders favored by tea partyers, is to preside over policy seminars for delegates.
Handling the ideological schisms will require a deft touch: Giving the microphone to a vanquished primary foe can backfire. Pat Buchanan's "culture war" speech to the 1992 GOP convention, intended to fire up disillusioned conservatives, wound up turning off moderate voters and contributed to President George H.W. Bush's reelection defeat that year.
This time, with an eye toward broadening the Republican Party's appeal to undecided voters, Romney strategists have tried to keep the focus on healthcare and the public's dissatisfaction with Obama's handling of the economy. Pushed as far into the background as possible: strictly conservative stances that Romney adopted in the primaries on immigration and social issues, including same-sex marriage and abortion, that helped win over the GOP's base.
But it is the collision of those issues — one of them brought sharply into focus last week by a Missouri U.S. Senate candidate's incendiary comments about rape and abortion — and population shifts that may pose the biggest threat to the party.
Latinos, the fastest-growing demographic group in recent years, are put off by the party's immigration stance. Younger voters reject its positions on abortion, same-sex marriage and attendant issues — such as contraception — which Democrats have used against the GOP for months. Republicans are becoming an older and whiter party in a nation that is becoming less so. Unless Republicans can broaden their appeal, the party's viability could ultimately be in doubt.
Nowhere is the looming difficulty more apparent than among Latinos. The coalition that Romney will try to mobilize this November will be made up overwhelmingly of non-Latino whites (89% of Romney's current supporters are white, according to national polling by the Pew Research Center). Looking ahead, the nation's white majority will continue to shrink, according to demographers. Minorities, and particularly the Latino community, will make up an ever-increasing share of the population.
Romney attracted support from just 28% of Latino voters in a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal-Telemundo poll, with a plurality expressing negative feelings about the Republican Party.
"There's no compelling evidence that the traditional conservative approach to the economy, or foreign policy, or education can't be successful in a national election. But what's absolutely clear is that the party needs to find a way to broaden its demographic base to even be heard on those issues," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican consultant who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
"National Republicans have made a calculated decision, for about 20 years now, that it's worth writing off states like California in exchange for a secure base of support in the South and in the near West [Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states]. But California's demographic makeup isn't nearly as unique as it was in the 1990s," Schnur said. "Romney's advisers make the case that Latinos are much more interested in the economy than in immigration. That may be true. But if voters don't think that you respect them as human beings, they're not going to listen to what you have to say about the capital gains tax or start-up loans for small business."
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American Republican from Florida, has described immigration as a "gateway issue" for reaching Latino ears and, ultimately, breaking a Democratic lock on their votes. But Jack Pitney, a former Republican aide who teaches politics at Claremont McKenna College, said the anti-illegal-immigration passions within the GOP's voting base conflict with the desire of party politicians and strategists to reach out to Latinos.
"The pattern is that a stand on immigration that's good for winning a primary is bad for Hispanics in terms of winning the general election. I don't know that there's an easy way out of that," he said. "It doesn't necessarily spell doom for the Republicans, but it does spell challenge."