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How Republicans win in 2016

Bob Ehrlich says the GOP shouldn't dilute its principles but needs to improve its messaging on social issues, outreach to Hispanics

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

8:00 AM EST, November 25, 2012

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Last week's column was all about why certain of us (49 percent nationally) continue to identify with the party of individualism and free markets.

This week, a related topic: what it will take to increase that 49 percent to 51 percent in 2016.

First, we should not attempt to emulate liberal Democrats on their core issues. A "Democrat-lite" approach is simply a nonstarter, despite the apparent dawning of a new progressive era in the U.S. Believe me, this too shall pass. Accordingly, any recipe for wholesale redrawing of the party platform should be resisted. In the immortal words of Malcolm X, "A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything."

An important reminder applies here: the platform is but a generalized statement of party positions. Few Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) support every single plank of the platform. For example, there are Republicans of moderate mindset on abortion and other social issues. Many live in Northeastern and coastal states that have taken on a decidedly blue hue over the past 20 years. Their willingness to retain a Republican identification should not be compromised in the interests of ideological purity.

On the communications front, a not-too-subtle reminder for GOP candidates when discussing social issues: Be real careful before you make comments that will transform you into human cannon fodder. Remember that the major media are not exactly even-handed when it comes to candidate foibles. Nine out of ten journalists vote Democratic. Most possess a left-leaning agenda. Accordingly, the ludicrous statements of senatorial candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock will always be held up as "proof" of a Republican war on women. And the news will be reported in a way to maximize political damage to other GOP candidates.

Conversely, the most egregious statements of a Van Jones or Debbie Wasserman Schultz will rarely be held up for critical analysis. The double standard is egregious, but there is little we can do about it. Deal with it. And stop complaining; the public hates political whiners.

Voting patterns by race always generate plenty of analysis. But, for present purposes, the (almost) universal support for an African-American president by African-Americans is understandable. Not a whole lot to do here other than continue to engage with a message of economic empowerment, educational choice and strong social values.

A white, Democratic candidate will not generate quite as much reflexive support. It is at that point where a continuing dialogue could pay political dividends. After all — and I realize the numbers are still pitiful — an African-American vote of 15 percent to 20 percent Republican would impact a number of important swing states in dramatic ways.

Speaking of swing states, the new conventional wisdom is that the Hispanic vote has become the majority maker in American politics. And the conventional wisdom is correct.

Hispanics make up 17 percent of the vote in Florida, 14 percent in Colorado and 17 percent in Nevada. They lean Democratic despite a strong identification with traditional Catholicism and equally strong traditional family values. An entrepreneur-friendly agenda is a potential GOP strong suit here. Hispanic Chambers of Commerce are growing exponentially as nearly 1 in 10 Hispanics owns a small business.

But immigration reform has been the GOP's weak spot in this community. A "get tough" approach to illegal immigration has alienated large numbers of Hispanic voters. Witness the blowback as a result of the GOP's support for Arizona's immigration reform effort.

The challenge is clear. A "comprehensive reform" with some GOP imprimatur is required. An eventual road to citizenship should no longer be a deal-breaker so long as serious pre-conditions (military service, payment of back taxes, clean criminal record, English skills) are part of the bargain. A renewed effort to increase border security is essential, too. Securing the homeland is vital in the terror era. Even (most) liberal Democrats are scared to advocate for pure open borders.

Regarding the gender gap, it works both ways. Democrats lose men, Republicans lose women. And pro-life Republicans (Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush) have performed well with women voters.

But it was the Democratic pre-emptive strikes on contraception that caught the GOP by surprise.

A common-sense solution: Maintain the pro-life plank in the platform while making it clear that those with dissenting views are still welcome. (Contrast Democrats putting out the "unwelcome sign" to their pro-life members.) And, make clear our support for an adult's contraceptive option of choice — but not the requirement that the taxpayers should be stuck with the tab.

All of which sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.