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Pollster Tells GOP Presidential Candidates To Recognize Voter Demographics


The Republican presidential contest sounds different than any before.


JEB BUSH: (Speaking Spanish).

INSKEEP: When Jeb Bush entered the campaign on Monday, he became the third Republican contender fluent in Spanish. All hope to attract votes among Latinos, who've been voting heavily for Democrats. A big reason is GOP opposition to a path to citizenship for people here illegally. One of the other Spanish speakers, Marco Rubio, did try to change that at one point, but the effort never became law. Senator Rubio's pollster is Whit Ayres. He has written a book arguing the party must change with the changing country.

WHIT AYRES: The percentage of whites in a 2016 electorate is going to be only 69 or 70 percent, compared to 88 percent during the Reagan era. And what that means is that a Republican who's going to be competitive in 2016 is going to have to do dramatically better among nonwhite Americans.

INSKEEP: Now, you talk about how Republicans have tried to analyze or absorb this demographic change that you're describing. And you have a section of your book that is headlined, "Problem? What problem?"

AYRES: That's because in the deeply red states, Republicans keep expanding their majorities. They're winning virtually all the congressional seats. They're expanding majorities in the state legislature, in the state Senate. They're winning the governorships. They're winning almost everything in sight. And so when you look at the overall demographics of what it takes to win nationally, a number of Republicans in red states say, wait a minute; the problem is we're not conservative enough. That's fine in their particular red state, but it doesn't sell to a national audience.

INSKEEP: Do Republicans need to change anything about what they're doing?

AYRES: Republicans need to have a far more significant outreach and a very different tone on certain issues, like immigration, if they are going to achieve the kind of margins they need, particularly among Hispanic voters but also among Asian voters and other voters who have not thought about voting Republican in recent years. Republicans need to nominate a transformational candidate who can cause people who have not even considered voting Republican in recent years to take a second look at the party.

INSKEEP: You said a different tone on immigration.


INSKEEP: Of course, you can hear Democrats and some Republicans say, actually, a different policy is needed on immigration.

AYRES: Well, you need to have a policy that sends a signal to Hispanic voters that we want you as part of the center-right coalition. You need a tone that sends the same message.

INSKEEP: There's already a distinction being drawn here by the leading Democrat, Hillary Clinton, though, on the specific issue of immigration. She hasn't said a lot on policy issues, but she has said this; some kind of legal status for people here illegally now that falls short of eventual citizenship would be a second-class status. She's really starkly put that out there. And that's a blow directly at people like Marco Rubio and others who have talked about some kind of legal status for immigrants but have had difficulty getting behind a path to citizenship. What are the challenges of that, and how will that specific issue divide the electorate that you're thinking about?

AYRES: Immigration is an extraordinarily complex issue. But most of the people who've thought this through have talked about legal status as an initial step for those who are here illegally. Some may eventually want to apply for citizenship; a great many may not. But that's all part of the complex solution to the problem. One of the things that Hillary Clinton has done is talk about extending Barack Obama's executive order, going even farther than he went. But that is not a solution to the immigration problem. Congress is going to have to pass a solution to the immigration problem. And by going there, she has made it far more difficult for her to work with what I think will still be a Republican Congress come 2017.

INSKEEP: As you look at the electorate, do you think it's going to be necessary for a Republican candidate to throw down that marker and say, I can support a path to citizenship under some circumstances that I will lay out?

AYRES: I don't know that a Republican candidate needs to spell out A, B, C, D, E and F, every single step. I think a Republican candidate needs to lay out a vision of where he or she would like to go on solving the immigration problem because it is widely viewed to be a very broken system right now. And so I think we need to wait to hear what each of the candidates is going to say about how they want to resolve this problem. But they all are going to need to say something about it.

INSKEEP: Whit Ayres, thanks very much.

AYRES: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's author of "2016 And Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect A President In The New America." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.