TAMPA - Should the Republican Party be the party of white people?
In the last few weeks, a debate has broken out within the GOP ranks that raises the question - and threatens to revive a racial argument between Democrats and Republicans that dates to the Civil Rights era and earlier.
The debate arises from a dissection of the 2012 presidential election using sophisticated statistical analysis by respected political analyst Sean Trende.
In influential articles on a political news site and in a new book, Trende rejects the hand-wringing within the Republican Party over its unpopularity among Hispanics and the push by some Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, to pass an immigration reform bill including a "path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants now in the country.
Trende argues that Republicans don't need to take "extraordinary measures" to curry Hispanic votes and thereby ensure the party's future.
Instead, he says, the increasing alignment of whites with the GOP - along with inevitable, incremental improvements with Hispanics and other minorities - is enough to keep the party viable.
Trende doesn't argue that Republicans should "double down on white voters," or become "the party of white people," as some national commentators have suggested.
"I don't want to give aid and comfort to people like Pat Buchanan," Trende said in an interview, referring to the GOP commentator who argued for a white Republican orientation.
"I'm just pushing back on the argument that the GOP has to pass this immigration bill if it ever wants to win an election. There are other successful paths the party could take."
v vOther experts at interpreting political data dispute Trende's analysis.
But his conclusions have galvanized backlash against Rubio's immigration reform bill and appear to be contributing to arguments on the party's conservative wing for a Republican focus on white voters.
Phyllis Schlafly, longtime anti-feminist, said on a June radio show that the party shouldn't try to woo Hispanics.
"I don't think they have Republican inclinations at all," Schlafly said. "They're running an illegitimacy rate that's just about the same as the blacks are, and the plain fact is they come from a country where they have no experience with limited government and the types of rights we have in the Bill of Rights. They don't understand that at all."
In a June column, Buchanan wrote that Republicans should be "opposed to what mass immigration is doing to the country demographically, ethnically, socially and politically."
That kind of rhetoric has given Democrats ammunition to scorn Republicans as racists.
"A strategy previously limited to such GOP racist dinosaurs as Pat Buchanan and Phyllis Schlafly is not only gaining steam, but becoming predominant among many Republicans," wrote Michael Tomasky of the liberal website Daily Kos.
But to many mainstream Republicans, arguments against outreach to Hispanics is dangerous anathema.
"The demographic changes in America ... are still not embraced by many of my stubborn friends," said Al Cardenas, a Cuban-American and former Florida GOP chairman who is now president of the American Conservative Union.
"When I came here as a first-generation immigrant, 80 percent of the country was white, but if I live to my actuarial life expectancy, whites will no longer be a majority. There will be no way we can ever win an election again without significant improvement with these demographic groups. We need to embrace the truth."
v vCardenas rejected comments like Schlafly's as "fear of assimilation of new people into the American way of life" and said much of the opposition to immigration reform comes from Republican Congress members with gerrymandered, minority-free districts.
"If you want to be an isolationist and worry only about your own lily-white district," he said, demographic changes "are not a problem. If you're talking about competitive races or a presidential campaign, it makes all the difference in the world."
GOP political strategist Karl Rove responded to Trende's analysis with an op-ed column titled, "More White Votes Alone Won't Save the GOP."
Trende analyzed exit poll data from elections back to 1980 to argue that white voters, who typically make up more than 70 percent of the electorate, are becoming more and more Republican.
If Democrats mock the GOP as "the party of white people," he wrote, "from a purely electoral perspective, that's not a terrible thing to be."
The 2012 Republican loss, he argues, was mainly because of a drop in white voter turnout, mostly among rural, working-class voters in the Northeast and Midwest. That cut the white vote from about 74 percent of the 2008 electorate to about 72 percent in 2012.
Trende says they stayed home on Election Day because they were disenchanted with what they considered the party's devotion to corporate interests, Wall Street and the wealthy.
"It's clear why they weren't enthused - the Republicans nominated someone who could be perceived as a plutocrat," he said, referring to former Massachusetts governor and investment firm founder Mitt Romney.
Once those whites return, the GOP will need only small gains among Hispanics to maintain its viability, and it's likely to get them, he argues.
Based on other polling data from the respected Pew Research Center, Trende says Hispanics aren't obsessed with immigration reform.
"What motivates Hispanic voters isn't all that different from what motivates white voters" - jobs, the economy, education. They lean Democratic mainly because they're poorer than whites, but as their socioeconomic standing improves, he says, they'll become more Republican.
His prescription for the GOP: "A healthy dose of economic populism" to cement ties to working-class whites, "jettisoning the pro-big business, Wall Street-style conservatism that characterized the Romney campaign," and being "more 'America-first' on trade, immigration and foreign policy."
v vNot only mainstream Republicans, however, but some political scientists disagree with Trende.
Two other experts in analyzing political statistics, Alan Abramowitz of Emory University and Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress, wrote a response contending that Trende used a flawed statistical analysis to prove that white voters are becoming more and more Republican.
They say Trende ignored the fact that minority voters, as well as white voters, were "missing" in the 2012 election. Further, they said, he used flawed statistical methodology to prove that whites are increasingly Republican.
What the figures really show, they said, is that "The Democratic presidential candidate can win the national popular vote with a smaller share of the white vote with each successive election."
If current voting trends continue, they said, by 2016, 30 percent of the electorate will be minorities, and a Democrat will be able to win even while losing the white vote by a 62 percent to 38 percent landslide.
American University political scientist David Lublin, who specializes in minority voting patterns, argued that other trends are also working against Republicans:
? Population numbers in rural America are declining;
? Other cultural issues besides immigration, such as gay rights, "are increasingly swinging the Democrats' way";
? Even upper-income Hispanics vote more Democratic than whites, and once alienated from the GOP, they're likely to stay that way for a generation even if their socioeconomic status changes.
"If you alienate people on a long-term basis, it becomes harder to win them back," he said.
Trende responds that experience, as well as statistics, bear him out.
"The 62 percent share of the white vote Republicans won in 2010 was probably the highest share for any major party since 1822."
The 60 percent share in 2012 was "unusually large" and occurred in a year when political circumstances weren't favorable for the GOP challenger.
Trende's concern is that the electorate will become more and more racially polarized - even if that benefits the Republican Party.
"I would not want to see that happen, but it's there" as an option, he said.