WASHINGTON — The Republican Party is smug. Uncaring. Rigid. An immovable collection of “stuffy old men.”
The assessment did not come from Democrats still gleeful about November’s victory — the fifth time Republicans have lost the popular vote in the last six presidential elections. It came from the Republican Party itself.
An unflinching analysis commissioned by the Republican National Committee and released Monday said female, minority and younger voters have been alienated by what they see as the GOP’s stale policies and image of intolerance.
Younger voters, it warned, 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. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”
Unless changes are made, the report concluded, “it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.”
But if the report provided evidence of how seriously some in the party take its problems, it also made clear the deep and complicating divisions Republicans face on issues such as immigration, gay marriage and the role of government.
Surveys during the presidential campaign and since have repeatedly shown that Republican policies are driving away groups of voters in ascendancy nationally. But the report’s most specific policy suggestion was to urge the GOP to champion “comprehensive immigration reform,” which some see as a gateway issue for Latino voters.
Though some Republican lawmakers have tried to craft a compromise on immigration, a vast, and potentially unbridgeable, gulf remains on a key issue: a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which many on the right reject as amnesty for lawbreakers.
In releasing the report he had commissioned, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Monday called female voters the party’s biggest problem. But the report was noticeably silent on specific social issues, including abortion and same-sex marriage, on which GOP positions have turned off many voters, especially unmarried women.
Others involved in the revival effort suggest that Republicans are caught in a trap in which policy shifts designed to broaden the party’s appeal as the electorate changes risk destroying the conservative coalition at its heart.
The report noted that the GOP agenda had changed little from the policies that Republicans offered 30 years ago, describing that as a weakness.
“Republicans have comfortably remained the party of Reagan without figuring out what comes next,” it said.
Party strategists are divided over whether to focus on problems with policy or shortcomings in the mechanics of campaigns. Priebus mentioned both Monday, but he mostly emphasized mechanics.
In the 2012 election, “Our message was weak. Our ground game was insufficient. We weren’t inclusive. We were behind in both data and digital. And our primary and debate process needed improvement,” he told a National Press Club audience.
The Republicans plan to open an office in San Francisco, one of the most Democratic cities in the country, in hopes of better connecting with people who can improve the party’s technology, he said, and the party may try to change the timing and format of primary debates.
But the GOP chairman said he saw no need to shift the party’s issue positions.
“Our policies are sound,” he said.
An opposing view, however, could be found in the cautiously veiled language of thereport, which called for Republican “flexibility on certain policy issues, especially in diverse demographic areas.”
“We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them too,” the report advised. “But it is not just tone that counts. Policy always matters.”
Even without specific policy proposals, the study is likely to intensify a growing debate over the GOP’s future between those who believe the party can win with better messaging and others who are convinced that the message itself has to change.
Last week, when conservative activists gathered in the Washington suburbs for an annual conference that has long been a major event on the calendar for aspiring Republican politicians, the loudest applause went to speakers who urged the party to stick to its guns. Many in attendance wrote off last year’s defeat as the fault of a weak nominee with an ineffective campaign, maintaining that a better messenger is all the party needs to win back the White House.
The fate of California’s Republican Party, which doesn’t hold any statewide office and holds only a third of the seats in the Legislature, stands as the object lesson for what some Republicans fear nationwide.
Mitt Romney won a majority of California’s white voters in 2012, exit polls showed, but lost the state to President Obama by 23 percentage points, in large part because of lopsided support for Obama by Latinos, other minorities and women.
Among California Latinos, the biggest obstacle “is the immigration issue generally, the perception that Republicans favor an extremely restrictive policy, which in many cases is true,” said John J. Pitney Jr., politics professor at Claremont McKenna College and a onetime Republican National Committee researcher.
“A lot of Republicans simply don’t campaign in Hispanic communities because they think their chances of getting votes would be better elsewhere. That’s the dilemma for Republicans: From the standpoint of a single candidate, it makes sense to concentrate resources where the best chances of getting votes are; from the standpoint of the whole party, however, it would be better for candidates to work in minority communities, even if they aren’t going to get votes in the short run, because they might get votes in the long run.”