The Republican Choice
How a party spent decades making itself white.
Filed under 2020 Election
Editor’s note: This story includes a historical quote that uses a racial slur.
THIS AREA IS BEING PATROLLED BY THE
SECURITY TASK FORCE.
IT IS A CRIME TO FALSIFY A BALLOT OR
TO VIOLATE ELECTION LAWS.
That National Ballot Security Task Force was made up of county deputy sheriffs and local police who patrolled the polling sites with guns in full view. A court complaint later lodged by the Democratic Party described the members of the task force “harassing poll workers, stopping and questioning prospective voters … and forcibly restraining poll workers from assisting, as permitted by state law, voters to cast their ballots.”
The National Ballot Security Task Force was not some rogue enterprise, or an ill-conceived product of a few extremist thinkers. It was funded by the Republican Party.
While the group’s goals were ostensibly to prevent illegal voting, it was difficult to take that at face value — it looked a lot more like a coordinated intimidation effort. Republicans hadn’t been afraid to say publicly that they didn’t want certain people to vote, after all. Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in a speech in 1980: “I don’t want everybody to vote. … our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
It wasn’t just Weyrich, either. During the 1971 Supreme Court confirmation hearing of future Chief Justice William Rehnquist, civil rights activists testified that he had run “ballot security” operations in Arizona and had personally administered literacy tests to Black and Hispanic voters at Phoenix polling places. Nor are these sentiments just a relic of a bygone era: In March of this year, President Donald Trump dismissed out of hand Democratic-backed measures that called for vote-by-mail and same-day registration to help ensure people could vote amid the COVID-19 pandemic: “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
The political wisdom is ingrained at this point: Black and brown people don’t vote for Republicans.
[Related: Why So Many Black Voters Are Democrats, Even When They Aren’t Liberal]
From that principle flows all manner of Republican strategy. Sometimes the efforts are less legalistic and more shock jock — in 2016, the Trump campaign described “suppression efforts” aimed at Black voters, which included placing ads on radio stations popular with African Americans that played up Hillary Clinton’s 1996 comments about “superpredators.” More often, though, these moves by Republicans involve accusations of widespread voter fraud, battles over voter registration, and court challenges to laws meant to protect the franchise of America’s minorities. Talk of “election integrity” by the Grand Old Party is inextricably intertwined with its modern history of pandering to racist elements of American life; any attempt to disentangle these stories and tell them separately is disingenuous, even if it angers partisans.
Efforts to tamp down the number of minority voters will likely continue this election. Following the abuses in Trenton in 1981, the Republican National Committee entered into a court-enforced consent agreement that it would not engage in voter intimidation efforts like the ones seen in Trenton — efforts the court deemed racially motivated. In 2018, the RNC was released from that consent agreement, and in May 2020, the RNC and the Trump campaign announced that they would spend $20 million to litigate initiatives like vote-by-mail and that they would recruit 50,000 poll watchers across 15 states. ”The RNC does not want to see any voter disenfranchised. We do not. We want every voter who is legally able to vote to be able to vote,” said RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel on a call with members of the press in May. “But a national vote-by-mail system would open the door to a new set of problems such as potential election fraud.” All this effort despite little conclusive evidence that voting by mail benefits one party over the other.
But it wasn’t always the case that the GOP looked to suppress the franchise, and with it minority-voter turnout. In 1977, when President Jimmy Carter introduced a package of electoral reforms, the chair of the RNC supported it and called universal, same-day registration “a Republican concept.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower won nearly 40 percent of the Black vote in 1956, and President George W. Bush secured about the same share of Hispanic votes in 2004.
Yet in 2016, Trump won just 28 percent of the Hispanic vote and 8 percent of the Black vote.
[Related: There Is No Evidence That Voting By Mail Gives One Party An Advantage]
The GOP’s whitewashed political reality is no accident — the party has repeatedly chosen to pursue white voters at the cost of others decade after decade. Since the mid-20th century, the Republican Party has flirted with both the morality of greater racial inclusion and its strategic benefits. But time and again, the party’s appeals to white voters have overridden voices calling for a more racially diverse coalition, and Republicans’ relative indifference to the interests of voters of color evolved into outright antagonism.
When I asked Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief strategist, how he thought the current GOP could go about appealing to minority groups, he declined to take the bait. “Thanks for trying to get me into the here and now, but I’m not going to get in there.”
I tried again. Bypassing Trump, did a Republican Party eight or 10 years into the future have a chance with minority voters?
“They’d better wake up to the necessity of doing it,” Rove said. “It’s a lost opportunity if we don’t.”
It’s not the first time Republicans have heard that sort of thing. But apparently it’s hard advice to take.
The moderates’ last stand
Conservative Barry Goldwater’s decisive presidential loss in 1964 led to a bevy of Republican primary candidates in 1968. Everyone wanted to save the party from ruin. Michigan Gov. George Romney emerged as the golden boy — the media golden boy — of the group, a successful Republican in a Democratic state who championed civil rights for Black Americans and opposed the war in Vietnam. Talking about the latter quickly got him into trouble, though, as he was a foreign policy neophyte and almost-debilitatingly earnest. While explaining his former support for the war during a 1967 interview, Romney said: “When I came back from Vietnam [in 1965], I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.”
Claiming the American military and diplomatic establishment brainwashed you wasn’t a particularly welcome thing to say back then. (Or now.) Historians mark this blunder as the beginning of the end of Romney’s chance to become the Republican candidate in 1968. And looking back, it was the beginning of the end of any liberal Republican standing a chance at winning the party’s nomination. (When Romney’s son Mitt ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, he called himself “severely conservative.” In the general election, he got 6 percent of the Black vote and 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.)
Romney fell from great heights. In 1966, Time magazine put him on its cover under the tagline “Republican Resurgence,” along with Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the country’s first Black senator since the Reconstruction Era, California Gov. Ronald Reagan and three other rising stars. Running on a strategy of courting the South, Goldwater had been flattened by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 general election, and more moderate candidates like Romney and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller were seen as the plausible Republican future. The promising candidates were, by and large, Time wrote, “moderates with immoderate ambitions.” But Romney was the man who got the most early attention. In a 1966 Harris Poll that asked who voters wanted to see as the Republican nominee in 1968, Romney beat out former Vice President Richard Nixon by 6 percentage points, Reagan by 14 and fellow moderate (and eventual vice president under Gerald Ford) Rockefeller by 13.
Romney had pushed for the adoption of a civil rights plank to the 1964 Republican platform, but his efforts failed miserably. Instead, Goldwater’s nomination marked a full embrace of a strategy that sought to win the votes of white Southern Democrats disillusioned by their party’s embrace of reforms aimed at racial equity. Today’s GOP is still informed by this “Southern strategy.”
In her book, “The Loneliness of the Black Republican,” Harvard professor Leah Wright Rigueur describes the treatment of the few Black delegates at the 1964 convention, several of whom were detained by security for talking to the press about their anti-Goldwater sentiments. One man’s suit was set on fire, and another “ran sobbing from the convention floor, crying that he was sick of being abused by Goldwater supporters. ‘They call you “nigger,” push you and step on your feet,’ he muttered to reporters, wiping tears from his eyes. ‘I had to leave to keep my self-respect.’”
Romney, for his part, was disgusted by the nominee and his stance on race. His moral high ground was notorious — years later, when his son Mitt ran for president, a former aide to George Romney told New York magazine that the elder Romney was “messianic,” adding “This guy was John Brown.”
Black voters might have been more circumspect. When violence broke out in a Black area of Detroit in 1967, Romney and Johnson each had a role to play, with Romney as governor and Johnson as president. They circled each other as they considered the response. “Neither wanted to take responsibility for installing martial law in an American city,” historian Rick Perlstein wrote in his book “Nixonland.” And Detroit was a heavily Black city, no less. Romney lost the game of chicken and eventually sent in the National Guard. Later in the campaign he toured the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and asked his driver what the word was that everyone kept calling him. “Motherfucker, sir,” he was told.
Romney, despite his best intentions, was part of a political party that had been slowly losing Black support for decades. While African Americans had long felt a sense of comity with the party of Lincoln, Republicans had been trying their patience for much of the 20th century. In 1940, Black party identification was split evenly at 42 percent. Eisenhower received a large share of the Black vote, in part because of voters’ disillusionment with Southern Democrats’ anti-civil rights beliefs.
But even those inside Eisenhower’s administration knew something was off about the GOP’s relationship with Black voters. His adviser E. Frederick Morrow, the first African American to serve in an executive staff position at the White House, was frustrated with the GOP’s often-indifferent efforts to court Black constituencies. In 1959 he gave a speech that decried the party’s apathy toward Black voters: “Republicans could not expect Negroes to be extremely grateful for what Lincoln did, since in effect he had merely returned to them their God-given rights of freedom and personal dignity.”
In 1962, Nixon told Ebony magazine that he owed his 1960 loss of the presidency to this kind of complacency: “I needed only five per cent more votes in the Negro areas. I could have gotten them if I had campaigned harder.” The African American vote was still a bloc that Republicans saw as gettable — Martin Luther King Jr.’s father was going to vote for Nixon until his opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, called King while he was detained in an Atlanta jail.
Romney’s disastrous “brainwashing” quote exposed the weakness of his campaign, and Nixon acted swiftly to shiv Romney’s underbelly of naivete. Nixon had long understood that the racist forces in the Republican Party that brought Goldwater the nomination remained a center of power despite Goldwater’s defeat. Nixon acted quickly to play to them, tying Romney to the violence in Detroit — he was governor after all. Nixon went further, arguing that “the primary civil right” in America was “to be protected from domestic violence.” White voters’ fears of Black Americans’ demands for civil rights made them uncomfortable with politicians who might support those rights — politicians like Romney. As Time had pointed out in 1966, the Democratic Party’s FDR-era coalition was fragmenting: “Negro militancy has siphoned off much support from urban Italians, Irish and Slavs.” Nixon, who would famously run as a “law and order” candidate, wanted those white votes.
Nixon got the nomination after a contentious convention, one fought over how tightly the party should be tied to its Southern base. Reagan led a last-minute push for the nomination that was quashed only when South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond stepped in on Nixon’s behalf, while moderate delegates tried to make Romney, not the South-approved Spiro Agnew, vice president. Reflecting on the party’s turmoil, Romney deployed a graphic metaphor for the GOP, warning that, “to prevent this abscess from re-forming [Nixon and Agnew] must make the party leaders from the states that must win the election for them at least as important as Mr. Nixon made the leaders of the South and Southwest in winning the nomination.”
More than half a century later, the abscess is still there. Over and over again, Republicans have faced the choice between a big-tent strategy and specific appeals to white voters — appeals that over time have become tantamount to bigotry.
And it wasn’t as if people weren’t pleading for Republican racial attitudes to change.
THE LATE 1970s
“The Republican Party needs black people”
In 1978, Republican party chairman Bill Brock invited Jesse Jackson to talk to party notables in Washington, D.C. An intimate of King’s, Jackson was a political whirlwind who had proved to be a dynamic civil rights organizer. “He is one of the few militant blacks who is preaching racial reconciliation,” New York Times reporter John Herbers had written of Jackson in 1969. His address trafficked in the language of incremental advantage so beloved by electorally avaricious political strategists. Seven million unregistered Black voters were waiting to be wooed by the GOP, Jackson said. “The Republican Party needs black people if it is to ever compete for national office — or, in fact, to keep it from becoming an extinct party.” The New York Times wrote that “Jackson’s proposition seems realistic enough” given that “thirty percent of Northern and 20 percent of Southern blacks already consider themselves independents.”
Jackson got a standing ovation from the crowd, and the good feelings of the day prompted Brock to say that the “right” 1980 presidential candidate “could hope for anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the Black vote.”
Reagan would go on to win only 14 percent.
For a fleeting political moment in the wreckage of Watergate, the GOP seemed to be open (once again) to the idea that their future could lie with voters of color. The conventional wisdom of that brief period, Perlstein told me in an email, “was that the Republicans would go the way of the Whigs unless they recouped their appeal to blacks.” (Perlstein has a forthcoming book that covers this period. Called “Reaganland,” it’s the latest volume in his multipart history of modern American conservatism.)
In the late 1970s, Jackson made the argument that Black voters should want the two parties to compete for their votes to attain greater political leverage. He worried that the Democratic Party would come to take Black voters for granted. (More than 40 years later, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden would tell a Black radio host, “I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”) Jackson’s own personal conservatism could be seen as emblematic of that of Black Americans, ones who could be potentially courted by the GOP. A 1979 profile of Jackson by the journalist Paul Cowan described him at an anti-abortion rally: “[He] denounced abortion as ‘murder,’ he insisted that ‘when prayers leave the schools the guns come in’ … he suggested that, while he supported women’s liberation, his wife at least should stay in her place — his home.”
But the good vibes after Jackson’s speech in 1978 did not last long. Republican bureaucrats in the Reagan era coalesced around the idea that minority voters were unwinnable.
A few months before Jackson’s speech in Washington, President Carter had introduced electoral reforms — an end to the Electoral College and same-day universal voter registration — that were met with praise from Brock, the RNC chair. But an essay that soon appeared in the conservative publication Human Events expressed an opposing view in the party. Writer Kevin Phillips said that Carter’s proposal “could blow the Republican Party sky-high” given that most of the new voters in a higher-turnout election would be Democratic.
Phillips, who worked for Nixon’s 1968 campaign, was the author of the 1969 book “The Emerging Republican Majority,” which articulated a road map for the GOP to sweep up white voters. Or as a 1970 New York Times profile of the Bronx native with “a visage that looked half scholar and half black-Irishman” put it: “Political success goes to the party that can cohesively hold together the largest number of ethnic prejudices, a circumstance which at last favors the Republicans.”
Phillips was one of many loud, young voices on the “New Right” that saw Reagan as the Republican future. Reagan said the Carter proposal might as well be called “The Universal Voter Fraud Bill,” and pressured Brock into reneging on his support for it, which he did. (Google NGram mentions of the term “voter fraud” spike starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s.)
Brock’s flip-flop embodies a contradiction inherent in many of the internal GOP struggles of the past few decades, and ones that continue today: Should the party invest in appeals to new voters or pluck racism’s low-hanging electoral fruit? Brock availed himself of the latter in his 1970 Tennessee Senate race. His “victory could be credited almost entirely to his sophisticated attempts to play on Tennessean’s [sic] racial fears and animosities,” according to the Almanac of American Politics. Often, the party has attempted to play both strategies, though the racial one usually seems to blot out the more ecumenical approach.
By the time Reagan appeared at a 1980 campaign stop at the National Urban League, the prominent civil rights organization, his appearance wasn’t to win over Black voters so much as to “show moderates and liberals that Reagan wasn’t anti-black,” one aide later said.
In 2005, RNC chair Ken Mehlman appeared at the NAACP national convention to formally apologize for the GOP’s Southern strategy. “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
It seemed an act befitting a party whose sitting president, George W. Bush, had run for office as a “compassionate conservative.” The branding was no accident. In 2018, Bush articulated why he felt the need to convey a more explicitly empathetic message. “I felt compelled to phrase it this way, because people hear ‘conservative’ and they think heartless. And my belief then and now is that the right conservative philosophies are compassionate and help people.” Rove put it a bit more bluntly when he explained that “compassionate conservatism” helped Bush “indicate that he was different from the previous Republicans.”
It was an extension of Bush’s past success with people outside the party’s usual base. When he was governor of Texas, he won more than 50 percent of the Mexican American vote. “He was comfortable with Hispanic culture. His kids went to a large public high school in Austin that was very Hispanic,” former adviser Stuart Stevens said. “Much of his appeal among Hispanics in Texas was attributed to his personal charm and charisma,” Geraldo Cadava, a professor of history at Northwestern University, writes of Bush in his book, “The Hispanic Republican.” “He spoke Spanish, ate Mexican sweetbreads in border cities, and for Christmas he made enchiladas and tamales that he, unlike President Ford, shucked before eating.” Rove said the Hispanic population in Texas was “highly entrepreneurial,” signed up for the military at high rates, and was religious, “so they tend to have socially traditional values,” particularly on the abortion issue. “What’s not to like about that profile if you’re a Republican?”
Bush’s platform aimed to be inclusive. Stevens pointed to the potential of No Child Left Behind as one example, an education program that increased funds for low-income schools, many of them home to Black and Hispanic students. Bush signed the program into law with the support of liberal icon Ted Kennedy — there’s a picture of Kennedy standing behind Bush as he puts pen to paper. Two Black children stand directly behind the president. “This is the kind of thing that the current Republican Party would present at a war crimes trial,” Stevens said of the show of bipartisanship. These days Stevens, who also served as Mitt Romney’s chief strategist during the 2012 presidential campaign, is disillusioned with the Republican Party and has a book (his eighth) all about it, “It Was All a Lie,” due out in August.
Progress with new, diverse coalitions could have been possible, Stevens said, but “you need to have changed the substance.”
But for many in the Black community, the substance boiled down to what Kanye West said during a live 2005 telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
Despite the compassionate conservatism rhetoric, the GOP of the Bush era continued to pursue policies hostile to Americans of color. The party deployed a warm and fuzzy message that belied the actions it took on voting rights. It tried to turn out Hispanic voters while tapping into efficient ways to shut down minority voting under the “voter fraud” umbrella. The abscess that George Romney had warned about not only had re-formed, it had grown.
“The first stirrings of a new movement to restrict voting came after the 2000 Florida election fiasco, which taught the unfortunate lesson that even small manipulations of election procedures could affect outcomes in close races,” Wendy Weiser, head of the Democracy Program at the left-leaning advocacy group the Brennan Center, wrote in 2014. As Carol Anderson of Emory University writes in “One Person, No Vote,” during the Bush years and beyond, Republicans who were “respectable members of society leveled the charges [of voter fraud] — U.S. senators, attorneys with law degrees from the Ivy League.”
John Ashcroft led a Department of Justice that took up a full-throated rallying cry against voter fraud. He had some of his own skin in the game — Ashcroft lost a 2000 Senate election in Missouri in which Republicans alleged mass voter fraud in Black precincts of St. Louis. A newspaper investigation later found the claims to be all but nonexistent. The Bush-era Civil Rights Division had the distinction of filing the first voting-discrimination suit on behalf of white voters in the history of the Voting Rights Act.
Perhaps no figure from the Bush Civil Rights Division emerged who was more controversial and long-lasting than Hans von Spakovsky. He promoted voter ID laws in his home state of Georgia starting in the 1990s, and gained infamy once he landed at the Justice Department for pseudonymously writing a law review paper under the name “Publius,” which promoted voter ID laws. Later, his identity revealed, he refused to recuse himself from a controversial case involving voter ID in Georgia. The case, which was handled under the auspices of the Voting Rights Act, led career lawyers in the Civil Rights Division to resign and, as journalist Ari Berman writes, “VRA enforcement came to a standstill. From 2001 to 2005 the DOJ objected to only forty-eight changes out of eighty-one thousand submitted, ten times fewer than during the first four years of the Reagan administration.”
Von Spakovsky has proved a durable advocate for his cause. Now the head of the Election Law Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation, he served on Trump’s now-disbanded Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The commission was created to investigate whether Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because of widespread voter fraud. No evidence for the claim has yet to be produced.
When I spoke with von Spakovsky, I asked him if it disturbed him that so-called voter fraud protection efforts disproportionately affect minorities — academic studies in various states have shown this, as has a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. He told me my assumption was wrong, and said there were studies on voter ID and election turnout that found ID requirements had had no adverse effect. He also pointed to the greater number of VRA cases brought by the Bush administration compared with the number undertaken during the administration of Barack Obama.
But Democrats don’t see it as quite that simple. “Counting up the number of cases isn’t really meaningful,” Justin Levitt, who worked in the Civil Rights Division during Obama’s presidency, wrote in an email when I asked him about von Spakovsky’s claim. “It’s a little bit like counting up the number of reps in a workout at the gym to try to figure out who’s more physically fit, without asking which exercises, which weights, which degree of difficulty. Or counting up the number of words in a piece to try to figure out which is the best reporting.”
Testing claims about the effect that voter ID laws have on election turnout is tricky. Findings about their effect have varied from state to state, which likely has to do with the nature of state laws and their voting populations. But a measure like turnout also doesn’t take into account how the laws push some people to go through greater effort to cast a ballot successfully.
Levitt, who is now a constitutional law scholar at Loyola Marymount University, did an investigation into cases of election fraud that could have been stopped by the use of voter ID, and found, out of about a billion ballots cast, only 31 instances from the period of 2000 to 2014. The analysis and its results prompt an obvious question: If fraud is so rare, what’s the actual purpose of ID laws?
Attacks on voter franchise are more broad than voter ID laws, of course. Voter roll purges have moved front and center in recent years thanks to events like the controversial 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election. And last year, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that the closure of polling places across the state had made it more difficult for Black voters to cast their ballots.
In 2005, after Mehlman’s mea culpa to the NAACP, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote that he found the RNC chair’s remarks disingenuous: “My guess is that Mr. Mehlman’s apology was less about starting a stampede of blacks into the G.O.P. than about softening the party’s image in the eyes of moderate white voters.” For all of Bush’s campaign rhetoric about compassionate conservatism and his focus on Hispanic outreach, his Republican Party had remained as devoted as ever to the cause of suppressing the franchise of people of color.
“If the apology was serious, it would mean the Southern strategy was kaput,” Herbert wrote. “And we know that’s not true.”
The loss of the 2012 election prompted a crisis of confidence among GOP leadership.
“I was close to RNC chairman Reince Priebus. He came to me right after the election and was like, ‘We need to do some soul-searching,’” Henry Barbour, a Mississippi political strategist, told me recently. Along with four others, he would go on to author what became glibly known as the 2012 Republican autopsy report — officially the “Growth and Opportunity Project” — that placed the GOP’s institutional problems in stark terms: “Many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”
Yet three years after the report’s publication, the GOP nominated Donald Trump, an anti-immigrant, race-baiting candidate. “How did people abandon deeply held beliefs in four years? I think the only conclusion is they don’t. They didn’t deeply hold them. They were just marketing slogans,” Stuart Stevens said. “I feel like the guy working for Bernie Madoff who thought we were beating the market.”
Priebus, who served as Trump’s chief of staff, did not respond to my requests to talk about the report he commissioned, and what has happened in the party since.
What has happened is a circling of the wagons around Trump and his race-baiting rhetoric and policies. Gone are the days of articulated philosophies like “compassionate conservatism.” Now, the GOP relies on contrarianism to distinguish itself and stoke good feelings among its core members. Just look at the ease with which ideologically driven leaders like former House Speaker Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney have been cast aside. Romney called Russia “our number-one geopolitical foe,” yet the party is now led by a president who repeatedly heaps praise on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
The one thing that the party has stayed true to is its reliance on the politics of race and racism. While membership in the party wanes and America grows more diverse, the GOP has become practiced at speaking to its core members’ desire to maintain a white-centric American society. Trump’s appeal relies heavily on attacks against the media and “PC culture,” the medium and mode of expression, respectively, of a diversifying country.
[Related: There’s A Huge Gap In How Republicans And Democrats See Discrimination]
Republicans know the bargain they’ve made. A 2007 Vanity Fair profile of Arizona Sen. John McCain during his presidential run speaks to an acute awareness that the short-term strategy of placating a white base would be damaging to the GOP’s long-term demographic expansion. In the story, McCain is asked about the political ramifications of the immigration debate: “‘In the short term, it probably galvanizes our base,’ he said. ‘In the long term, if you alienate the Hispanics, you’ll pay a heavy price.’ Then he added, unable to help himself, ‘By the way, I think the fence is least effective. But I’ll build the goddamned fence if they want it.’”
During his 2010 Senate reelection campaign at the height of the Tea Party movement, McCain cut a TV spot meant to annihilate any ambiguity over immigration that he might have expressed during his presidential run. In the ad, McCain strolls along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying “Complete the dang fence,” to which a white sheriff responds, “Senator, you’re one of us.” It is perhaps the least subtle advertisement involving a politician since Bob Dole and Britney Spears appeared in that 2001 Pepsi commercial.
The post-2012 election report urged Republicans to return to what sounded a lot like Bush-era immigration stances and semantics: “We are not a policy committee, but … we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
The strategist types I spoke with all seemed in agreement on the wisdom of this: “You grow a party with addition,” Barbour told me. “Politics is ultimately about addition, not subtraction,” Stevens said. “It’s completely dumb and destructive for their interests every time you say you’re going to target a smaller and smaller pool of voters to win,” was former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd’s take. Both he and Rove seemed irritated at what they thought was a popular misrepresentation of their infamous “base strategy” that used issues like same-sex marriage to generate the high turnout of core Republican constituencies, like evangelical voters. “You win an election by having enthusiastic turnout in your base, by swiping people from the opposition and doing well among the independents,” Rove said. To suggest otherwise was “ridiculous.”
So, had other Republicans misinterpreted that strategy as an excuse not to go after voters outside the traditional GOP core? “Oh, yeah, absolutely.” Rove answered. “Look, we lost the popular vote in 2000. What were we going to do, win again that way?” Trump had, I pointed out. “Yeah, well, and look, it’s happened five times in American history,” Rove said, reeling off the dates from memory. I asked whether he was saying it’s a fluke of history. “Oh, yeah,” he replied. So, Trump would need to win the popular vote in order to win this time around, I asked, knowing I’d pushed a little too close to the present day.
“Look, stop it, stop it, stop it,” Rove said. The conversation ended soon afterward.
Republicans with more immigrant-friendly views remain on the outs in an era when the party has focused on things like a family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border. There are reports that Bush won’t vote for Trump in the fall. It feels as if a breaking point has been reached, given the pandemic and the paroxysms of protests and violence following the police killing of George Floyd. Trump’s leadership has been called into question, especially on race: 58 percent of Americans in a recent poll said they disapproved of how Trump was handling race relations in the country. The number is remarkable, if only for the fact that these days it’s difficult to get 58 percent of Americans to agree on anything except perhaps distaste for airline travel and love of Dolly Parton.
As the booming economy crumbled in the midst of the pandemic, so did many more moderate Republicans’ support for the president. As Trump tweeted about “thugs” and dispersed peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the move wasn’t reflective of “the America that I know,” while Bush issued a rare public statement sympathizing with the plight of Black Americans: “Black people see the repeated violation of their rights without an urgent and adequate response from American institutions.”
The country has taken note, and Trump’s poll numbers — for the time being — remain consistently below Biden’s, sometimes showing the Democrat with a double-digit lead. But there’s no sure thing in American politics these days. The election itself could be a chaotic, unpredictable enterprise.
The potential for disenfranchisement is very real in the upcoming presidential vote. The pandemic has given experts real concern that a poorly administered election could see thousands who want to vote essentially denied the right to do so. With that, seeds of distrust will be sown in the outcome. Just this week, Trump tweeted: “RIGGED ELECTION 2020: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”
“I am most worried in places that have had the lowest levels of mail voting, where the election officials are least prepared, where they don’t have the resources and where the rules are also hotly contested. So, states like Wisconsin, states like Georgia, where the political culture has been voting in person, there have been a lot of fights over voting access, where the rules need a lot of adjustment in order to have fair access to mail voting,” Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center told me.
Democrats and Republicans are currently locked in legal battles in various states over the rules that will govern November’s election, which could largely take place by mail. It is a fractured process and the types of cases litigated cover mail ballot deadlines, early voting access, ballot collection, prepaid postage and a host of other issues. So many separate litigations are underway that each side has their own website with clickable maps showing what fight is happening in each state. “Across the country we’ve seen Democrats under the guise of [the] COVID-19 crisis in a wholesale way try to change the election to fit their election agenda items that have existed long before this crisis,” RNC Chair McDaniel said. “We believe that many of the lawsuits they have initiated would destroy the integrity of our elections, so we’re fighting back.”
One complication of mail-in ballots could arise during their validation, which often requires a signature. Barry Burden of the University of Wisconsin’s Elections Research Center told me that young and Black voters tend to experience higher rates of ballot rejection based on that requirement. “Young people and minorities are less likely to have a signature on file with the state,” he said. Plus, young people might have not developed a good cursive signature, and there might be an implicit bias on the part of poll workers if an African American or Hispanic name is less familiar to them. Marc Elias, who got his start as a recount lawyer and is now directing the Democrats’ broad expanse of election-related litigation, told me that differential rejection rates on ballot signatures “has always been the silent epidemic of American voting.” The COVID-19 pandemic just helped make more people aware of it.
[Related: Our 2020 National Polling Averages]
Von Spakovsky, for his part, told me that concerns for voting in person were overblown this year. “I think you can safely hold an election under these circumstances,” he said, pointing to the precautions taken in places like grocery stores, as well as for a recent election in South Korea.
But not all Republicans share that sentiment. “I think our messaging is all wrong, frankly,” Barbour said. There are legitimate concerns being expressed by Republicans over a largely vote-by-mail election, he said. But in the midst of a pandemic, people’s fears of infection should be taken into account. “Forget the political angle, eligible voters must be able to vote.”
Some Republicans do try to intimidate people at the voting booth, Barbour said. He recounted his own experience in the 2014 primary race between Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel.
“There was this runoff — we knew we were probably going to lose if we didn’t treat it like a general election,” he said of the Cochran campaign. They courted all voters, Black, white, and Democratic. “People were furious. ‘How dare y’all?’” Barbour said of the reaction to the strategy. “All these people came out from Georgia, saying, ‘We’re going to be at these polling places, and if you show up, you’re not going to be able to vote.’ I will say, as a Republican, I was embarrassed.”
“I kind of got a taste of what it’s like to be on the other side, seeing that happen, and I found it offensive and clearly wrong.”
CORRECTION (June 24, 7:43 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated that Nelson Rockefeller served as vice president in the Nixon administration. He was vice president under President Ford.
CORRECTION (June 24, 8:33 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated where the Watts neighborhood was that Romney was touring during his primary campaign. It was in Los Angeles, not Detroit.