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Diverse GOP candidates struggle to attract minority voters

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio held a town hall meeting at the Laconia VFW in Laconia, N.H., on Monday.Cheryl Senter/AP

Never before has the field of Republican presidential candidates been so diverse: Two Hispanic-Americans, an African-American, a woman, and, until last month, an Indian-American, were among a crowded field of White House hopefuls.

But while the candidates have changed, the crowds who follow them have not.

As the GOP presidential candidates visit the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire, they are most often greeted by a sea of white faces. As the candidates turn to more diverse states later in the calendar, they will operate in a campaign climate that so far has been defined by a billionaire whose comments are often offensive to the growing minority groups the party must attract next year to win.

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Donald Trump's call this week to close the borders to Muslims only served to reinforce concerns among political analysts and strategists that the GOP can't seem to shake the image that, as the party's own post-mortem report after its 2012 loss put it, "Republicans don't care about people."

"A lot of campaigns have done very innovative things," said Henry Barbour, one of the coauthors of the "Growth and Opportunity Project" autopsy report and a leader in the Republican National Committee. "But it only takes one boneheaded, divisive comment from a Republican candidate to hurt and do damage."

And there has been more than one such episode.

Earlier this year, Trump said Mexican immigrants are "bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists." Ben Carson — the only African-American candidate in the race — compared Syrian refugees to "rabid dogs." Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey said members of Black Lives Matter "have been chanting in the streets for the murder of police officers."

US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents are Cuban, has ascended in the polls — many months after he backed off his support for a bipartisan immigration overhaul bill. US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who is also of Cuban descent, has one of the most conservative positions on immigration in the GOP field. He has declined to criticize Trump's latest comments on Muslims.

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Meanwhile, the candidates who have made an outreach to minority communities, such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush and US Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, have struggled to reach double digits in polls. Bush, whose wife is Mexican-American, has called for Republicans to reinstate their Hispanic debate on Telemundo and frequently speaks Spanish on the campaign trail.

"We should campaign with brazos abiertos, with our arms wide open," Bush told a New Hampshire crowd in September, according to several media outlets.

But unforeseen events changed the race. Carson and Trump, with their outsider status, have topped polls for months. Terrorism and foreign affairs are taking center stage in the wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and the Syrian refugee crisis.

Stephen Nuño, a political scientist at Northern Arizona University who specializes in Latino politics, labels the rhetoric by some candidates "xenophobic" and says it is a sign that little has changed within the party since its 2012 self-assessment.

"They're actually probably going backward," Nuño said in an interview before Trump's comments about Muslims. "With refugees, and the whole discussion — the xenophobic discussion — that's surrounding that, it's not going to improve their chance with any minorities."

According to a recent poll of registered Latino voters in 14 battleground states, the percentage of Latinos who view the Republican Party as "hostile" toward them has more than doubled since 2012. Forty-five percent of respondents choose "Republican Party is sometimes hostile towards Hispanics/Latinos" as the phrase that best describes the GOP today. In 2012, 18 percent of respondents selected this option, according to the impreMedia/Latino Decisions survey.

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In the last three presidential elections, Republicans have seen their share of support among Hispanic voters drop. In 2012, Republicans lost the popular vote for the fifth time in six presidential elections.

This is not where the GOP wanted to be.

The party's 100-page postmortem after the 2012 election laid out dozens of recommendations to change its image just a few years ago.

These suggestions included campaigning "among Hispanic, black, Asian and gay Americans," better connecting people with policies, sounding less like "bookkeepers," and embracing and championing "comprehensive immigration reform." The report also called for increasing hires from diverse communities and building a nationwide database of black, Hispanic, and Asian-American leaders who can serve as surrogates to carry the GOP message into their communities.

"Many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country," the report said. "The perception that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party and its candidates at the federal level, especially in presidential years. It is a major deficiency that must be addressed."

The party has implemented some of these reforms, opening, for example, an African-American engagement office in North Carolina and relaunching the Future Majority Project to recruit and elect candidates from diverse backgrounds at the state level.

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"Don't get impressed because the party has diverse candidates," said Raynard Jackson, a Republican and founder of the super PAC Black Americans for a Better Future. "We're talking about the optics. But where's the money trail? Where are the black operatives? Where are the black vendors? Something tangible."

Analysts say a diverse campaign staff can tap into a broad coalition of voters who trust and respect the people surrounding the candidates.

"You'll find a good black conservative preacher to sort of vouch" for candidates, but "one or two people at the local level isn't good enough," said Ted Johnson, a former White House Fellow who writes about race and politics.

It is also about paving the way for a class of black political operatives — campaign managers, pollsters, etc. — to ascend Republican ranks much like Jesse Jackson's failed 1988 presidential run did for Democrats, Raynard Jackson said.

Jackson recently convened a focus group of black independents, Republicans, and Democrats, and he asked them: "Is there anyone on this panel who, under no circumstances, would vote for a Republican in the next election?"

"Not one hand was raised," he said. "What that says to the Republican Party is that the black community is not adverse to voting Republican, but as a party we have not given them a reason to look at us."

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The party, Jackson said, should be talking about how GOP policies will affect issues of particular interest in the black community such as widening economic disparities, decreasing enrollment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and school choice.

But voters don't always ask candidates about these issues in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that kick off the presidential nominating contest and often winnow the field of contenders. Those two states are relatively homogenic — especially the pool of likely Republican voters.

What's more, Johnson said he is doubtful this will happen because in primary politics, it is about pandering to the base, which is a sliver of the overall electorate.

"Because the bases are so polarized now, you normally get the most conservative, far right people voting in primaries," he said. "Meaning, you have a competition for who can be the most Republican, the most conservative, the most [far] right."

And that makes the job of those trying to broaden the coalition that much harder.


Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.