The GOP “diversity problem” explained

By Meredith Conroy and Caroline Heldman

Nikki Haley 2010

Nikki Haley 2010



When it was announced that Nikki Haley, Republican governor of South Carolina, would be giving the official response to Obama’s final State of the Union address, Democratic National Committee chair and Representative of Florida’s 23rd District, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, commented that the choice by the GOP was because they have a “diversity problem.”

The GOP does elect fewer people of color than the Democratic Party, but does this mean they have a diversity problem?

Racial minorities are underrepresented in Congress – they make up 17% of the legislature, compared to 38% of the population. An analysis of the racial diversity in Congress reveals that out of 102 members who are racial/ethnic minorities, only 18% belong to the Republican Party. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, of the 38 current members of Congress who are Latino, 31% are Republican. Of the 48 Black members, only 6% are Republican. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, 3% of congressional members are Asian American (which encompasses Asians, Pacific Islanders, and South Asians). Only one Asian-American member is Republican, and both of the two Native American representatives in Congress are Republican.

These numbers do point to a diversity gap between elected Democrats and Republicans that reflects a gap in partisan identification in the electorate. About 23% of Latinos, 24% of Blacks, and 35% of Indian-Americans in the U.S. vote Republican. In short, racial/ethnic minorities prefer the Democratic Party by a wide margin.

However, the Republican’s “diversity problem” is not confined to race. Women are significantly less likely to identify with the Republican Party than men.

Women are underrepresented in Congress overall – 19% compared to 51% of the population, but they are especially underrepresented in the GOP. Only 27% of the women who are sitting members of Congress are Republicans. As with race, this partisan gender gap reflects a gender gap in party identification in the electorate.

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study of partisanship, 52% of women identify as Democrats, while 36% as Republicans. One key reason many women turn to the Democratic Party is the GOP’s policy positions. In recent years, Republicans have passed more than 200 bills limiting abortion rights. Many in the GOP have supported a deceptive campaign against Planned Parenthood that has been linked to a shooting at a Colorado women’s health clinic, where three people were killed. Republicans also voted unanimously against the Paycheck Fairness Act, intended to address the persistent gender gap in wages. (White women make 78 cents for every dollar a white man makes, while black women make 64 cents, and Latinas make 54 cents.) In their article, Deason, Greenlee, and Langer (2015) argue that the partisan disparity in elected female officials may be due in part to the respective policy positions of the parties.

Limited gender diversity in the party recruitment pool also accounts for partisan gender gaps in political leadership. Crowder-Meyer and Lauderdale (2014) find that the Democrat’s advantage in electing female candidates can be explained by the parties’ respective eligibility pools. In 2012, women comprised 56% of the Democratic pool compared to only 26% of the Republican pool. Furthermore, women in the Democratic pool tend to be better educated and hold higher occupational prestige than women in the Republican pool, characteristics that affect electoral viability.

The GOP’s decision to elevate Governor Haley by asking her to give the official response to President Obama’s State of the Union address was likely an attempt to inoculate the party from its “diversity issues.” Haley was employed as a weapon against Donald J. Trump, but also tested as a potential weapon against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

With respect to Trump, his candidacy has turned back much of the progress made by Republicans, since the 2012 election, including a primary field that is the most diverse ever with one female, one Indian-American, one African-American, and two Latino candidates vying for the nomination. In 2012, the Republican Party conducted a postmortem on the presidential election that generated dozens of recommendations to improve its electoral viability. The report stated,“Many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country,” and, “It is imperative that the RNC changes how it engages with Hispanic communities to welcome in new members of our Party.” Yet any progress, or proposed efforts, in terms of diversity, have been overshadowed by Trump’s candidacy. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll finds that over the course of the primary season, the GOP has lost major ground amongst African Americans and Latinos, who have a much more unfavorable view of the Republican Party today, than they did before the election season.

Polling analysis shows that Trump is the least electable of the major Republican candidates in a match-up with Clinton. Of the 30 national polls that have been taken since August of 2015, Clinton beats Trump in 25 and ties him in two. Clinton bests Trump in all of the national trial heat polls, and her solid lead has not wavered. The running average of national polls shows Trump losing to Clinton by 5.5 percentage points, while Marco Rubio beats her by 1.9% and Ted Cruz trails her by less than 1%.

The selection of Haley for the State of the Union response is a signal that the Republican Party establishment wants to neutralize Trump by elevating diverse party representatives. Moreover, existing scholarship finds that role models are a key factor in getting more women into positions of political leadership. Campbell and Wolbrecht (2006) find that the presence of visible female role models does in fact increase the propensity for girls to express an intention to be politically active, signaling the importance of making visible political women, especially Republican women, of which there are fewer. Haley’s rebuttal was a great opportunity for girls and women across the U.S. to hear from a woman of color backed by a major political party, a rare opportunity in U.S. politics.

*These calculations include non-voting delegates from the US Territories.

Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino. 

Caroline Heldman is an associate professor of political science at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, CA.



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