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GOP boasts of diverse 2016 presidential field

Whether diverse slate of candidates translates into broadened appeal among minorities remains to be seen

WASHINGTON — For years the Republican Party has been engaged in a pointed struggle to diversify its ranks and attract a broader cross section of voters to include more Latinos, African-Americans, women and young people.

But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the crop of 2016 presidential contenders for the party’s nomination. With former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and neurosurgeon Ben Carson recently declaring their White House ambitions, the ranks of official Republican candidates now include a woman (Fiorina), an African-American (Carson), two Cuban-Americans (Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas) as well as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who, though a white male, has made rebranding the GOP a central part of his platform. In the coming weeks and months, it’s also likely that candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been an aggressive advocate for GOP outreach to the Latino community, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American, will also enter the race.

Taken together, the slate of candidates will likely be the most diverse group that either party has ever fielded, according to a Washington Post analysis. The GOP field is a marked contrast from the outlook on the Democratic side, where the field of current and prospective candidates is both smaller and whiter — including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Part of the reason may be the GOP’s concentrated efforts to cultivate and encourage diverse talent, said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University who studies race in politics.  

“The Republican Party is really trying to figure out a way to remake itself to fit the contours of the changing demographics in America,” she said. “I think it’s highly unlikely that, going forward, you are not going to have serious diverse candidates on either side.”

The Republican Party has in recent years been vocal about its problems with attracting minorities and young people. In 2013, after President Barack Obama won re-election with sizable margins among African-American, Latino and young voters, the Republican National Committee commissioned a post-mortem on the GOP’s travails, urging new approaches.

“America is changing demographically, and unless Republicans are able to grow our appeal the way GOP governors have done, the changes tilt the playing field even more in the Democratic direction,” the authors of the report wrote, describing the party’s prospects, particularly in presidential elections, as “precarious.”  

A 2012 Gallup survey of party affiliations corroborated those conclusions, finding that a full 89 percent of those who identified with the Republican Party were white and only 6 percent were Latino.   

Having a diverse slate of candidates, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into broadened appeal with more constituencies, particularly when the conservative policy stances of many of the GOP candidates remain the same.

A poll conducted by Latino Decisions, for instance, found that only 31 percent of Hispanic voters who cast ballots in the 2014 election had a favorable opinion of Rubio, despite his touting his experiences as a child of Cuban immigrants.

Gillespie said that Republicans will inevitably face stumbling blocks in speaking to minority communities with their full-throated embrace of individualism.

“If they really want to make some serious inroads, they’re going to have to do more than promote these individual diverse candidates,” she said. “With the language of individualism that Republicans tend to speak in, it’s going to sound to people that race doesn’t matter in American society, and that is a hard argument to make in general, and it’s especially hard to make in certain communities.”

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