The growing clout of minority voters
This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Aug 19, 2012.
Both tall, broad-shouldered and with full heads of dark hair, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin lawmaker Paul Ryan, make a telegenic pair.
Throw in their blonde wives and wholesome-looking children, and pictures of the smiling group on stage look like what political Kodak moments are made of.
But the all-white pairing has raised questions about the Romney campaign's election strategy and the future of the Republican Party.
For one thing, can they appeal to minority voters, in particular Hispanics, who represent a growing political force in the United States due to rapid demographic changes? And how long more can the party remain competitive by relying on its ageing, shrinking white voter base?
These questions are particularly pertinent in the upcoming election where the incumbent is not only the country's first African-American President, but also a leader whose extraordinary hold on the black and Latino vote remains strong despite the weak economy.
In the weeks leading up to Mr Romney's running mate announcement on Aug 11, national polls showed that although support from his core base of white voters was up, his weak approval among minorities had scarcely improved.
Overall, he was also falling behind President Barack Obama.
Speculation was rife that Mr Romney would try to attract voter groups that have eluded him so far and show sensitivity to demographic changes by picking a running mate who might appeal to Hispanics, African-Americans or women and independents.
Unconfirmed reports hinted that Dr Condoleezza Rice, an African-American who was national security adviser and secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, was being considered.
Others suggested Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who is of Cuban- American descent, would be a better pick.
But in the end, Mr Romney picked "someone like himself", noted Mr Darrell West of the Brookings Institution. This, Mr West added, indicated that Team Romney "had given up on significant outreach to ethnic minority voters".
Professor Kerry Haynie, an expert on racial politics at Duke University, said ethnic minority voters might not have rejected Mr Romney outright. But his "choice of Mr Ryan sends a bad signal to ethnic minority voters, as his economic proposals would disproportionately impact them in a negative way".
The 42-year-old lawmaker, who chairs the Republican-dominated House of Representatives' Budget Committee, is the architect of controversial budget blueprints which seek to cut government funding for federal social and entitlement programmes popular with lower-income ethnic minority voters.
In his latest budget plan submitted in March, Mr Ryan proposed slashing funding for the government health insurance programmes for retirees and for the poor, Medicare and Medicaid, respectively.
Other social safety-net schemes targeted include unemployment benefits, job training for the displaced and food stamps.
Mr Ryan's aim to shrink the ranks of government workers will also affect black and Latino workers, many of whom are employed by local, state and federal agencies.
The Romney-Ryan team's position on immigration could further alienate Hispanic voters. In contrast to Mr Obama, they oppose immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children.
Mr Ryan's selection may result in a bigger loss of the Hispanic vote than any Republican presidential candidate in over a decade, according to the news website Politico.
Given that Latinos are the fastest-growing minority population in the US and are becoming more politically active, this has serious implications for Mr Romney's chances on Nov 6 and, more broadly, for the future of the Republican Party. The proportion of Hispanics in the US electorate has risen steadily, from 2 per cent in the early 1990s to 9 per cent in 2008.
In 2008, black voters accounted for 13 per cent, and whites 74 per cent of the electorate.
The Hispanic voting bloc is seen as more up for grabs than African- Americans who vote overwhelming for Mr Obama.
Currently, polls measuring the popularity of Mr Obama and Mr Romney among Latino voters show the President with a wide lead.
An Aug 13 Politico and George Washington University survey put that lead at 62 per cent to Mr Romney's 26 per cent.
Hispanic voters, however, are not a monolithic bloc. Cuban- Americans "still caught up in Castro and communism"' tend to vote Republican. This may boost Mr Romney's odds of winning in some swing areas, said Dr Lance deHaven-Smith of Florida State University.
It is still possible for the Republicans to carve out a path to victory, albeit a narrow one, without robust support from minority voters, experts said. The route the Romney campaign appears to have chosen is the well-worn "base strategy".
To win, Mr Romney has calculated that he must motivate the traditional Republican base of older white- and blue-collar white voters - particularly in the southern and swing states - so that they turn out in large enough numbers to vote for him.
The selection of Mr Ryan underscores that the campaign "has reached the conclusion that it is harder to change people's minds about who to vote for, than it is to change their minds about whether to vote at all", said Professor David Rohde of Duke University's political science department.
Experts said that it appears Mr Ryan was brought in to excite a particular segment of the Republican base - the Tea Party movement.
Tea Party activists have proven themselves to be a formidable political force in terms of mobilising grassroots support.
They had doubted Mr Romney's commitment to small-government conservatism in the past, but now that their ideological hero Mr Ryan is on the ticket, they are likely to pound the pavement for the pair.
However, it remains to be seen how older white voters react to Mr Ryan's proposals to reform social security and Medicare, two government programmes they are highly protective of, said experts.
The "base strategy" is "not something the Romney team thinks is guaranteed to be successful; this is something that is the best of a set of bad choices", said Prof Rohde.
Analysts argued that what was a successful tactic for past Republican presidents may not hold true for Mr Romney today because of changing demographic trends.
Compared to three decades ago, there are today far fewer white voters for Mr Romney to win.
In 1976, only 10 per cent of all votes were cast by non-white voters. This year, ethnic minority voters are expected to cast close to 30 per cent of the total vote.
Pundits reckon Mr Romney is aiming to repeat what Republican icon Ronald Reagan did in 1984, which is to win a very high percentage of the white vote, or more than 60 per cent.
Mr Obama, however, can overcome his rival if he maintains his 2008 percentage of the white vote (43 per cent), and succeeds in getting a very high turnout of ethnic minority voters along with youths and women on polling day.
It is tough to predict how this year's race will play out eventually, but what is clear is that the ethnic minority vote will carry increasing clout in years to come, making it harder for the Republicans to win just by depending on their traditional white base.
"Concentrating only on the white vote is a long-term losing proposition for any party or candidate," said Dr William Frey, a demographer at Brookings.
In about a decade, about 46 per cent of America's voting age population will be ethnic minorities.
"If ethnic minority voters today can make a difference in a close election, they will have even more of an effect in the future," he added.
The Republican Party will have to find ways to incorporate minority voters and address issues they are concerned about, including education, affordable housing, and help for young families.
Prof Haynie said: "This is a very different set of issues from what the older, white voter is concerned about.
"The Republican Party has to change if it wants to remain competitive on the national stage in the long run."