WASHINGTON — The Republican Party’s got a big image problem that won’t be easily overcome, as a new GOP study found it’s often viewed as the party of "stuffy old men” with a weak, ineffective message.
Without changes, the report warned, “it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.”
The party remains plagued by a perception that minority voters are not welcome and that Republicans lack tolerance for those who back gay marriage, abortion rights, generous Medicare benefits and other flashpoints that dominate the American political debate.
“I didn’t need a report to tell me that we have to make up ground with minority groups, with women, and with young voters.” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
Priebus released a 100-page report from a five-member study group he named shortly after Republicans lost the 2012 elections they thought they had a good shot at winning.
“Our message was weak, our ground game was insufficient, we weren’t inclusive, we were behind in both data and digital, our primary and debate process needed improvement,” he said at the National Press Club.
The report went further, describing how voters often saw the party as “narrow minded,” “out of touch” and “stuffy old men.” And, Priebus lamented, “The perception that we’re the party of the rich continues to grow.”
He knows that until the policies have broader appeal, he’s got a tough task. At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney spelled out the challenge: “The best way to increase support with the public for your party is to embrace policies the public supports. And embracing policies the public does not support or aggressively rejects makes it more difficult to earn the public’s support.”
But national parties don’t get involved in policymaking or pick favorites in nominating contests. And in recent years, diehard conservatives have sometimes defeated Republican establishment favorites for nominations, only to lose the general election because their candidates are perceived as too extreme.
Monday’s Republican report reiterates how the party is divided between pragmatists such as Priebus and ideological favorites such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. “The GOP today is a tale of two parties,” the report said.
One is the successful gubernatorial wing, where 30 Republicans now govern in states that have 315 electoral votes, more than enough to win the White House. Those governors often succeed by reaching out to Democrats.
“It is time for Republicans on the federal level to learn from successful Republicans on the state level,” the report said.
But when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and failed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggested that Friday to a conservative conference in Maryland, the response was tepid.
Those conservatives – the foot soldiers who are more likely to get people to the polls – made it clear they are on a mission and in no mood to work with Democrats. They fervently oppose abortion, are wary of same-sex marriage and see government as far too intrusive.
Priebus also can’t do much about issues dividing the party. Gay marriage is gradually becoming accepted in some Republican circles, and the chairman was asked about Friday’s announcement by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that he now backs the idea.
“It’s not a matter of whether I support his decision,” Priebus said. “I support him doing what he wants to do as an elected person and as an American.”
The party’s toughest task could be wooing minority voters. President Barack Obama won 93 percent of the black vote and 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012. The two minority groups accounted for about 23 percent of the total vote.
Priebus’ antidote is a multi-pronged strategy that includes hiring more staff to go into the minority communities, get to know people and make voters trust Republicans.
But isn’t that what the party has been trying to do for decades, without much result? “We’re going to rely on selling the message,” said Glenn McCall, South Carolina Republican National Committee member. Eventually, minority voters will come to accept Republicans, he argued.
That could be difficult, because the party is going to have trouble speaking with one voice. Just hours after Priebus finished outlining his plan, Jenny Beth Martin, national Tea Party Patriots coordinator, made it clear her movement is on the march.
She recalled the conservative conference and said it’s sending a strong message. “Again and again,” she said, “attendees voiced their support for principle over party, grassroots over consultants, local control over federal bureaucracy and individual freedom over the nanny state.”