With the 2016 Republican primary consumed by Trump-fueled talk of immigrant rapists, border walls, and revocation of birthright citizenship, it’s safe to say that Republican elites feel like they might have a problem on their hands when it comes to Latino outreach. The GOP’s share of the Latino vote has plunged in each of the last two presidential elections, which spells trouble for the party given the growth of the Latino voting population and dwindling numbers of white voters that Republicans have come to rely on heavily.
To stand a chance of winning in 2016, the Republican nominee will have to pull in more Latino support than John McCain and Mitt Romney were able to muster. That would be a heavy lift on its own, and the fact that the 2016 immigration policy discussion has been framed by Donald Trump’s undiluted nativism isn’t making it any easier. This weekend, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus about this toxic dynamic on immigration and the worry among Republicans that it could cost the eventual GOP nominee Latino support and, following from that, the White House.
Here’s what Priebus said:
PRIEBUS: Well, look, I've said many times, the way you communicate and tone is very important. Sometimes it's not what you say, it's how you say it. I think all of our moms have told us that. Look, all these candidates are going to have to account for their own mouths and their own words.
And so if you go back to 2012, it wasn't anything another candidate said, whether it be the 47 percent or whether it be, you know, self- deportation, it was the nominee's words that came back into play. Look, I think at the end of the day, each candidate is going to be accountable for their own words and their own mouth and so they should proceed with caution.
“Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” That’s true! And it’s actually something Priebus has been saying for quite some time now. Way back in June 2013, he went on Fox News Sunday to discuss the immigration reform bill that was before Congress and his party’s approach to immigration generally, and he said, “I do believe that policy positions matter, but I also believe that it's also sometimes not what you say, it's how you say it.” When he said it back then, the RNC’s approach to immigration issues was twofold: change the party’s policy position to embrace comprehensive reform, and change the way Republican candidates talked about immigrants.
The urgency of that strategy was reflected in the RNC’s 2013 “Growth and Opportunity Project,” which recognized that the GOP’s demographic troubles were a dire threat to the party’s chances of capturing the White House. “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e., self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” the report cautioned. “But it’s not just tone that counts,” it continued. “Policy always matters.” The RNC took the extraordinary step of pushing comprehensive immigration reform as Republican policy, warning that a failure to do so would mean “our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
The policy portion of that strategy was a tremendous failure. With the help of 14 Republicans, a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed the Senate, and was then left to rot on the shelf by conservatives in the House. Then the GOP rallied around a “deport everybody” strategy as a response to last summer’s child migrant crisis. Then the party tried to defund the Department of Homeland Security to stop President Obama from using his executive authority to protect certain immigrants from deportation. Rather than moving towards agreement on any sort of reform proposal, the party slid backwards into its draconian “border security” obsession.
As such, Priebus doesn’t really talk so much anymore about the policy part of the GOP’s rebranding strategy for Hispanics. Instead he focuses on “tone” and continues to voice his hope that his party’s candidates won’t say any more stupid and inflammatory things about immigrants. Given that he’s still being made to answer questions about high-profile Republicans alienating voters with anti-immigrant rhetoric, it feels safe to say that that part of the strategy has failed spectacularly as well.
Not only have Republicans not softened their tone when it comes to immigrants, but the ones who do try to make their message more inclusive are singled out for ridicule and attack. Jeb Bush’s description of undocumented immigration as an “act of love” would seem to fit nicely within the RNC’s strategy for Hispanic outreach, but that phrase has become a mocking slogan for Jeb’s conservative critics, and it was the centerpiece of a grossly demagogic ad produced by Trump’s campaign.
This is so completely at odds with the party’s post-2012 rebranding agenda that Priebus doesn’t even try to spin some good news out of it. The best he can do is issue a plaintive, non-specific warning to the candidates to maybe mind their p’s and q’s because people who vote are listening to what they say. The RNC recognized not too long ago that both tone and substance mattered when it came to immigration policy, and the fact that they’ve made negative progress on improving both is a remarkable failure.