GOP Hoped To Diversify—Then, Trump : The NPR Politics Podcast A report from Republicans after Mitt Romney's loss called for the party to diversify its base. Instead, President Trump won. Now what?

This episode: campaign correspondent Scott Detrow, political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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GOP Hoped To Diversify. Then Came President Trump.

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GOP Hoped To Diversify. Then Came President Trump.

GOP Hoped To Diversify. Then Came President Trump.

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/892030879/892061764" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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AUSTIN: Hi. This is Austin (ph)...

HANNAH: And Hannah (ph).

AUSTIN: ...Calling from Bloomington, Ind. We just got done doing our daily workout while listening to the NPR POLITICS Daily Workout Playlist on Spotify. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Yeah, it is 2:10 Eastern on Thursday, July 16.

HANNAH: Things may have changed by the time you hear this.

AUSTIN AND HANNAH: All right. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DETROW: If you do not know about this, we have a playlist of workout music that we all listen to - with the podcast in it - on Spotify. Danielle, I was too embarrassed to contribute, but I have finally contributed to the next round.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Yes. I haven't looked yet. This is so exciting.

DETROW: (Laughter) Mara, we need your workout music on the playlist next.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Ooh. I've been listening to "Hamilton," the - you know, the filmed version of the play, of the musical.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh.

DETROW: I have watched it a couple of times already.

KURTZLEBEN: Yep.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the presidential campaign.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson. I'm the national political correspondent.

DETROW: All right. So as is well-established on this podcast, President Trump is trailing in the polls by a lot. So last night, his campaign tried to do something about it. They sidelined campaign manager Brad Parscale, and they replaced him with Bill Stepien. Mara, this has kind of seemed inevitable for a while, right?

LIASSON: Yes. Parscale was on the outs. People were criticizing him for making so much money on the Trump campaign, for injecting himself into Trump commercials, being too high-profile - that's something that the president doesn't like at all. But on the other hand, we've seen so much turmoil in the Trump campaign in 2016. He went through a lot of campaign managers. And, also, in the Trump White House, this is kind of par for the course. Don't forget - the real campaign manager is Donald Trump, just like he's his own press secretary and communications director. And Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, is still really running the campaign. So I don't think this shake-up means that we're going to see a lot of difference in the president's strategy.

KURTZLEBEN: Is what you're saying here that, for another candidate, this sort of shake-up would make a bigger difference?

LIASSON: It would make a bigger difference. But remember - turmoil and chaos is a feature, not a bug of Donald Trump's operation.

DETROW: And we should point out that Joe Biden also changed campaign managers shortly after he secured the Democratic nomination. Let's talk about something else that has happened in the last day or so. And this seems to be, like, a bigger deal. The Republican National Convention, I think, has really symbolized the COVID quicksand that President Trump finds himself in. He kept insisting on having a full-scale event. He even moved the location of the rally part of the convention from Charlotte to Jacksonville. He wanted a big crowd. But this morning, the RNC kind of conceded to reality. What is this latest plan? And how much has it scaled down?

LIASSON: Scaled down a lot. They're only going to have - 2,500 people will be allowed to the first couple of days of the convention. But then, on the last night, when Donald Trump accepts the renomination of his party, there will be 7,000 people in the arena, whichever arena he chooses. This is not the giant raucous rally kind of renomination by acclamation that the president wanted. And he has - little by little, the RNC has kind of bowed to the COVID reality.

DETROW: So that is the presidential campaign news of the day. And for the rest of the podcast, we're going to shift gears a little bit and talk about a story that, Danielle, you spent this week reporting on. It's on a big report the Republican Party did after they lost the 2012 election that we all referred to ever since then as the autopsy. It got a lot of attention at the time. As we're going to talk about, Donald Trump - for a large part - ignored this plan. So let's just start with this. Why does this report that the Republican Party did in 2013 - why is that worth thinking about and talking about seven years later?

KURTZLEBEN: To me, there's two things. And to me, I break it down between the short term and the long term. The short term is this - is when the report came out - I mean, when I went back and looked at news surrounding this report from early 2013, which is when it came out, it's funny because if you look at the people who were talking about it - you know, Mitt Romney was the one who occasioned it. Reince Priebus, then the chair of the RNC, was the one that commissioned it. You had people like Jeb Bush going out and advocating for it. (Laughter) And what you see is this row of people who Donald Trump, in one way or another, kind of laid waste to...

DETROW: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Or has criticized or has come into massive conflict with - I mean, sort of people who eventually were on the outs. But then, aside from that, when you think about the long term, it's still - it's that this report was looking at the long-term health of the party, not just for 2016 but looking well ahead, saying, look; the groups that we need to win that we are not doing a great job of winning - especially people of color, Hispanics and Latinos, Asians, Black Americans - those groups are the groups that are growing, and we're not doing well with them. And aside from that, you know, young voters who are quite diverse - we need to do better with them. Women. That was one of the headline findings here. It still applies, and Donald Trump hasn't done it. So even while he won, that has kind of put a veneer over whether the report has worked or not.

LIASSON: Well, the report might not have worked as a guidebook for the 2016 and 2020 election strategy of the Republicans, but it's still a really valid road map for the future, and it's hard to argue with any of its conclusions.

When the autopsy report said that the Republican Party was in danger of becoming a party of just old white men, what Donald Trump did is he came along and said, you know what? I'm going to challenge that. I think that even though the long-term demographic changes in America don't look good for the Republican coalition - which is a bunch of rural noncollege white voters, or at least it's heading that way - I can eke out another win, maybe two, by boosting the number of white noncollege voters who turn out and vote for us.

And guess what? He did it in 2016. He's trying to do it again in 2020. And remember Bill Clinton said, make change your friend? Well, Trump kind of flipped the autopsy on its head. Instead of making demographic change your friend, he said the Republican Party should play on white noncollege voters' fear of change, and that's how we can win. And he did it by the skin of his teeth in 2016, and right now he's on the losing end of it in 2020. We don't know whether he's going to win or lose in 2020, but he certainly is suffering among all those rising groups in the electorate, whether it's suburban white women, minorities, young people.

DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we'll talk about what the authors of the report think about everything that's happened with the Republican Party since they wrote it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: OK. We're back. And, Danielle, you talked to some of the authors of this report. What do they make of the past four years and how the Republican Party has really coalesced around President Trump?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So there were five main sort of co-authors on this report. I ended up speaking to three of them for this story. And what I'll say is there is no consensus. And this really symbolizes the split in the Republican Party today that I know we've talked about as well. But, for example, I spoke to Ari Fleischer. He was the press secretary for George W. Bush, and Glenn McCall, he's an RNC member from South Carolina. They both said, you know, in general, Trump hasn't done too bad. I mean, clearly, he won, so QED. Ari Fleischer - the way he put it was this. Look. Trump did what the report said to do, i.e. expand the people that are voting for us, but he did it in a different way. Trump expanded it, but among white non-college-educated people, especially white non-college-educated men. And that, yeah, there's still room to grow among people of color. And he thinks Trump can do it.

Now, on the other side of things is Sally Bradshaw. She was a Republican strategist. She helped run the Jeb Bush campaign in 2016. We know how that went. Now she has left politics and the party. She actually runs a bookstore, fun fact. She actually didn't want to talk. She told me this in an email, that I hope Trump loses. I hope Republicans lose the Senate. This report was a failure. The Republican Party needs to get back together under conservative principles and conservative ideas, and they haven't done it.

LIASSON: Well, what you just read was one of the many salvos in the upcoming Republican civil war. After Trump leaves office, whether it's in 2024 or 2020, this party is going to go through a wrenching debate about how it stays relevant, how it wins elections in the future with a changed, more diverse, browner, more female electorate. And those conversations started the day after Trump was inaugurated, only they're going to get more and more heated when he leaves office. What does the Republican Party look like post-Trump? How much of Trumpism do you want to keep? Do you want to keep the nationalism without the xenophobia? And this is a huge debate. And it's going to spring into the open as soon as he leaves the field.

KURTZLEBEN: And one thing to add there, by the way, is that this is not just about demographics. It is a big part of the report, that's true. This is also about ideas and about what it means to be conservative. I mean, Donald Trump's followers, supporters in 2016 were more economically liberal than Republicans tend to be, than supporters of other candidates tended to be. And look. Donald Trump was opposed to immigration. This report explicitly says you have to do a comprehensive immigration overhaul. Donald Trump has opposed various trade deals, and that is not historically a consensus Republican position. So rethinking things after Donald Trump is not just about outreach. It's about ideas.

LIASSON: Trade is one area that Trumpism might be permanent because the Democratic Party has changed on trade, too.

KURTZLEBEN: True.

LIASSON: But in terms of embracing a diverse American electorate, that's where he really departed from where the autopsy thinks the Republican Party should go. And just to remind people how fluky his win was in 2016, Mitt Romney lost in 2012 with a larger percentage of the vote than Donald Trump won with in 2016. Obviously, that was because of third-party candidates. But it shows you how narrow his win was.

DETROW: So, Mara, even if elements of the Republican Party wanted to get back onto this track, how possible is that given everything that's happened over the last few years and how much the party has reoriented its policies, its identity, its tone around President Trump?

LIASSON: That is an excellent question. I have been talking to Republican thinkers and operatives for four years about what post-Trumpism would look like and whether you can have Trumpism without the xenophobia. In other words, Trumpism without all the self-defeating parts of the Trumpian ideology, the parts that aren't going to be saleable or appealing in a more diverse electorate. So is that possible? Is the xenophobia a feature or a bug? And that's really interesting. Things like trade, like being tough on China, I think the Republican Party is going to continue to be for those things. Those are things that Trump introduced that will stay. But I think the party is going to have to figure out how to be more inclusive.

Post-Trump, the party's going to have to figure out a way to broaden its base beyond white non-college evangelical voters. You're going to have a huge debate in the Republican Party. People like Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, young senators, are vying to be the next generation of Trumpists. You've got people like Marco Rubio or Nikki Haley or others who think the party has to rethink itself around issues of race. This is just going to be a huge, huge debate. Trump, I think, has done things to the party that are going to be hard to reverse.

KURTZLEBEN: Let me put this in terms of political science, social science research. I mean, a couple of the things we know are, one, that winning the future means, of course, winning young voters, which means winning more diverse voters. You can't talk about one without the other. And so yes, what Mara was saying is true. It matters to be more inclusive and diverse. And there is, to some degree, a divide between older and younger Republicans on what people care about. So, for example, climate change. Climate change, some polls have shown, younger conservatives, younger Republicans do want some answers on. And Donald Trump has not shown himself to be concerned with that, so...

LIASSON: Quite the opposite.

KURTZLEBEN: ...That is a shift that - exactly, yeah. So that's a thing that the Republican Party might have to do, for example, in the future. And aside from that, there is also research that shows that younger voters - the person who is president at the time that they come of age to vote can shape their partisan identities for life. So those are two things that I kept thinking about when I was reading this report, writing this article. So that is what I think the party has to think about looking ahead is winning those young voters, winning those diverse voters and to what degree they have to actually change direction and think about new ideas to do that.

DETROW: There's a lot more in Danielle's story. You can read it at npr.org. That's it for today, though. We'll be back in your feed tomorrow. Until then, you can send us your timestamps for the top of the show. Just record yourself and whatever fun activity you're doing or, you know what? Mundane activities are OK, too. And send the file to nprpolitics@npr.org. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the presidential campaign.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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