Three years ago, Donald Trump took to Twitter to express his dismay with the national Republican Party’s self-examination.
“New @RNC report calls for embracing ‘comprehensive immigration reform,'” he wrote, referring to the Republican National Committee.
“Does the @RNC have a death wish?” he asked.
Three years ago, those were the random thoughts of a politically inclined billionaire. Three years later, those thoughts — and that man — have become the first product of a reckoning that many critics now believe has gone awry.
On March 18, 2013, the RNC released the “Growth and Opportunity Project” — which many Republican leaders and members of the media took to calling the “autopsy report.” The RNC had commissioned it after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney flopped in the 2012 election.
The people most involved in that report now say they’re pleased with how many of the recommendations have been implemented in the first presidential election cycle since.
Henry Barbour, one of the report’s co-authors and a RNC committeeman, praised how the report’s lessons have been implemented to successes on the state and local levels and to progress on the digital side.
But there’s a catch — and a big one — in Trump as the party’s potential standard bearer. Many in the party worry about Trump’s effect on some of the areas where the most drastic changes were urged. Others say Trump’s rise has negated years of Republican outreach to groups that normally haven’t supported the party in the past.
“It’s like having Hannibal Lecter chair a commission to prevent cannibalism,” said Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican strategist and a prominent Trump critic.
The 2013 report broadly addressed how the GOP had failed on virtually every level in the presidential election — from its digital and data operations, to its primary process, to its message on key issues.
It was a staggering bit of self-examination for a major political party suffering from its second-straight defeat in a presidential election and worrying about its relevance going forward.
The report was extensive, based on more than 2,500 interviews with voters, private-sector officials, and party members and elected officials, as well as a poll of 2,000 Republican Hispanic voters and an online survey taken by more than 36,000 people.
With the party at an apparent crossroads, it urged action. The Republican Party, it said, had become “out of touch” and filled with “stuffy old men.” It was “talking to itself” rather than reaching out to new constituencies. The perception was, simply, that it did not “care about people.”
But in the first election cycle since the report’s release, the question has become: Are the record turnouts Trump is helping to drive in primary contests a potential boon? Or is the divisiveness he is helping to sew dooming the party to another death — and, perhaps, a lasting split?
“You can influence how people vote. You can win over people who used to be against you. You can make inroads into the other team. But demography — the changing face of America — is very important to understand,” said Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, in a recent interview.
Fleischer was one of the report’s five co-authors.
And frankly, it is an issue Donald Trump’s going to have to face in a fascinating way. Because if much of the evidence is true that he’s bringing in new voters and the Republican turnout is up, the question is, can he change the maths? But I’m very worried that Trump is going to do dismally with African-Americans and with Hispanics.
One recommendation of the report in particular dogs Republicans with a devastating contrast of what the party desired to become vs. the reality in 2016.
It appeared on the eighth page of the report. The Republican Party, it said, “must embrace and champion comprehensive-immigration reform.” This came off an election in which the party’s nominee had, in the primary, advocated the practice of “self-deportation,” which followed Romney until Election Day. He lost the Hispanic vote, 73% to 27%, according to exit polls.
The report warned that if the party did not back immigration reform, its appeal would continue to shrink to minority groups, particularly among Hispanic voters.
And yet, three years down the road, the only two Republican candidates with a legitimate current shot at the nomination — Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — have only gone further than Romney in criticising immigration-reform bills.
Trump, in particular, identified the issue long before his run, as evidenced by his 2013 social-media posting. He made illegal immigration the center of his early campaign platform and advocated, among other things, building a massive wall along the US-Mexico border and creating a “deportation force” to deport the approximately 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
“I find it a worrisome development that immigration reform has not been passed,” Fleischer said. “It remains a fundamental issue. It needs to be done.”
He said he was nevertheless encouraged that Republican candidates were talking about different versions of the immigration-reform concept, but added: “The idea of deporting everybody in this country is very problematic.”
In many ways, Trump rejected the report from the very first day of his campaign last summer.
In his announcement speech, Trump infamously remarked that Mexico was sending its “rapists” and other criminals across the border. His campaign has been marked by controversy after controversy, from his proposal to temporarily bar Muslim immigrants and tourists from entering the US to the recent escalation of violence at his campaign rallies.
Trump argues, however, that he has already expanded the reach of the party. So far, the evidence supports his theory. Exit polls have shown that he has built perhaps the most diverse coalition in modern Republican history — one that stretches across all of the party’s ideological and demographic boundaries.
“I think the coalition he’s bringing together is what we’ve felt — when we were discussing the report — that we need to win at the national level,” said Glenn McCall, a vice chair of the 2016 Republican National Convention and another of the co-authors of the “autopsy report.”
“I didn’t know if his heart was in it” when he launched his campaign, McCall added of Trump. “But as he started the process and you looked at those rallies he would have, it was people from all walks of life. So I think that’s been positive.”
Fleischer also thinks it’s possible for a candidate like Trump to “uniquely change the maths” of turnout calculations. Trump could be in a rare position to draw in new, mostly white voters to his candidacy, in the form of first-time voters and working-class independents and even Democrats.
Still, many party leaders worry about whether that coalition can succeed in a general election in which, as Fleischer noted, the demographics are rapidly changing. A recent Gallup poll showed Trump as the least popular candidate among Hispanic voters, with a dismal 77% unfavorable rating. No other candidate came close.
“Let’s say Donald Trump’s the nominee, and Donald Trump loses because he’s not able to grow the coalition among Hispanics and African-Americans and he didn’t get enough of the white vote,” Fleischer mused. “Well, that will prove that this report was accurate because of the changing demographics of America.”
But if his campaign has been any indication, Trump has never thought much about the report. In a tweet the day after his earlier 2013 posting, he expanded upon his criticism of the “autopsy report.” It echoed much of his frequent shredding of the Republican establishment class throughout the campaign.
Trump wrote: “@RNC report was written by the ruling class of consultants who blew the election. Short on ideas. Just giving excuses to donors.”
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