GOP uses convention spotlight to embrace diversity

As the hurricane-delayed convention gets rolling Tuesday the GOP will present a multi-hued face onstage. Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz, who is Latino, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is of Indian descent, and Utah Congressional candidate Mia Love, who is black, all will speak Tuesday night.

But the 4,411 delegates and alternates watching them in the Tampa Bay Times Forum will be nearly all white, and polls show President Barack Obama -- the nation's first mixed-race president -- with significant advantages among minority voters.

Leading Republicans acknowledge picking up more minority votes is crucial to the party's long-term survival, as the nation becomes less white. From the convention site in immigrant-heavy Florida to the roster of speakers to daily briefings for Latino reporters, Republicans are attempting to court minority voters. Latinos are a particular target, as they are the nation's fastest growing demographic and have been more of a swing group than traditionally Democratic black voters.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said both parties have been reaching out to Latinos more than ever this year in light of the 2010 census showing a booming Latino population. National conventions present a heavily watched showcase for that effort.

"It's part of that sort of acceptance of the fact that this is a segment of the electorate that has to be incorporated in an institutional way, and ultimately that's what we want to see," Vargas said.

But the Republican Party platform includes a strict stance on illegal immigrants that has been embraced by soon-to-be presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who during the GOP primary floated the idea that some immigrants could "self-deport."

"It's policy more than anything else," said Larry Sabato, the head of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "In the end that matters more than all the symbolic gestures in the world."

This year, 46 Republican delegates are African-American, or about 2 percent of the total, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. That is up from 36 in 2008, which was the lowest number in 40 years, but far less than the 167 black delegates in 2004, which was the highest since 1912, said David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center.

The Joint Center does not track Latino or other minority delegates, but the Republican convention is likely to have more Hispanic delegates than African-Americans, he said.

Bositis found that 26 percent of the 4,000-plus delegates to the 2012 Democratic National Convention are African-American. He estimates that at least 40 percent of the Democratic delegates will be from minority groups.

Bositis said the Democratic Party has appealed to African-American voters for years while Republican leaders and voters were seen as hostile to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Joint Center has collected delegate diversity data for more than 40 years but ran into some states withholding information or refusing to provide data this year, including Georgia, Virginia and Illinois Republican state parties, Bositis said.

Bositis said the GOP needs to broaden its appeal to minority voters or face irrelevance in the coming years as America becomes more diverse.

"The Republican Party base is white, aging and dying off," he said.

He noted, "They should have been adapting all along -- I've said that before -- but right now they'll do no such thing. They're afraid of their current voters, not their future voters. Their current voters are old and white."

GOP pollster Whit Ayres has been pushing the party to appeal more to Latinos. They are not monolithic -- Cuban-Americans tend to lean Republican, while Mexican-Americans are more Democratic, for example -- but Ayres said Republicans can draw in more Latino voters if they try.

"We need to adopt a tone that talks about Hispanics as voters we want in the Republican coalition rather than folks to run against," Ayres said, referring to the charged politics of immigration policy.

Ayres said Republican outreach must occur in substance and tone, and he pointed to Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's work on immigration reform as a possible path forward.

Republicans in Congress have defeated Democrats' "Dream Act," which would give a path to citizenship for immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children who go to college or serve in the military. Rubio would give them a visa but not citizenship.

Obama this summer put out a controversial executive order deferring deportation for those immigrants. The action "cut [Rubio] off at the knees," Ayres said.

Rubio, who will introduce Romney on Thursday night, is one of several minority Republican stars in Florida. The state's lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll, is a black native of the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Cuban-Americans such as Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have long been a force in the state GOP.

"We've got a lot of diversity in this state's Republican Party because Florida is also such a microcosm and melting pot," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "It makes a lot of sense to have the convention staged in Florida, but I think it's very important to put a younger and more diverse face on the party."

Nationally, the party is struggling to attract nonwhite voters.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Obama leading Romney 94 percent to 0 percent among black voters, and ahead by a two-to-one margin with Latino voters.

Herman Cain, the black McDonough businessman who ran in the Republican presidential primary, challenged the notion that no black voters will vote for Romney at a Tampa rally Sunday night, asking for the black "zeroes" in the crowd to stand with him.

In an interview Cain said the polls do not reflect what he hears anecdotally in the black community and that minority voters are moved by the same thing as white voters: the economy.

"Let me tell you what black people care about -- green," Cain said. "Green as in business success. Green as in a successful corporate career. Green as in being able to start a business and having a legitimate chance of making it succeed. That is the best outreach program you can have to blacks, Hispanics, Jewish-Americans, Asian-Americans, any ethic group. The best outreach programs are programs that lead to economic success."

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. Atlanta. News. Now.

With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.