by Nia-Malika Henderson
Senior Political Reporter
DETROIT (CNN) — Welcome to the Republican rainbow coalition.
With Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina officially joining the GOP presidential race Monday, the Republican field includes two Latinos, an African-American and a woman. And depending on Bobby Jindal’s next move, an Indian-American — a term he’s not fond of — could also be in the mix.
2016 is shaping up to be a year of historic diversity for Republicans, setting the party apart from the all white line-up that’s emerging on the Democratic side. That distinction is important for Republicans as some in the party try to make inroads with minorities. But the biggest question is whether a diverse slate of candidates will actually help the GOP overcome its demographic problem, which has contributed to losses at the presidential level in two successive elections.
“With more diversity, comes diverse attention and with diverse attention comes diverse voters,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist. “It’s not going to change the world, but it’s helpful. It’s a chip away strategy, every percentage counts. It’s not a planned out strategy, but it’s one that Republicans should take advantage of.”
If the overwhelmingly white crowd that gathered here for Carson’s announcement at Detroit’s Music Hall for the Performing Arts is any guide, the GOP hasn’t yet landed on a quick fix.
His audience in this majority black city included few of the African-Americans who have championed his story for decades. With his candidacy, Carson is sacrificing some of his ties to the black community for a different crowd that is often just discovering him.
Rather than expanding the party to new African-American voters, Carson attracted black voters who know his story and have voted for the GOP in the past.
“He is what I call the example of the American dream fulfilled,” said Tony Davison, a 33-year-old African-American who voted for Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. “He came from nothing and became something.”
The diverse roster of candidates is the most visible acknowledgment that the GOP needs to broaden their tent beyond the coalition of older, white voters, who haven’t been able to deliver a national election since 2004, and only then by a slim margin.
The candidates — Carson and Fiorina along with Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas — are all betting to varying degrees that being demographically different will make their candidacies that much more attractive. Rubio and Cruz all tout their Cuban roots, even as they criticize policies like health care and immigration reform that have strong support among many Latinos. Even Jeb Bush, whose wife is Latina, claims status as an “honorary Latino.”
For her part, Fiorina has said her campaign would essentially neutralize any advantage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy might have with women.
Though she called for an “end to identity politics,” in her announcement speech, many of her best lines are about Clinton and how she would match up against the former first lady.
“If Hillary Clinton had to face me on the debate stage, at the very least she would have a hitch in her swing,” she said at a conservative gathering in February.
In 2012, the gender gap was larger than ever with Republicans winning men by 8 points and Democrats winning women by 12 points. Democrats also pushed their advantage among African-Americans and Latinos to record highs, as both groups showed up in historic margins.
Peeling off a share of those voters will be crucial to the GOP’s chances in 2016 — and a primary contest is a good start.
Carson is well-known among African-Americans — he has a high school named after him and an exhibition at the local black history museum. But his criticisms of President Barack Obama — he once called him a “psychopath” — have dampened some of that support, his aides acknowledge.
The retired neurosurgeon, whose up-from-nowhere biography will be central to his candidacy, rejected the idea that blacks won’t support him.
“That’s not what I’m finding as I travel around. I think that’s what the liberal establishment would like to happen. They want to paint that narrative,” he said in an interview with CNN. “When I talk in black neighborhoods and the things that I talk about — self-empowerment, and personal responsibility, family and a relationship with God — those are seen as good things.”
Emphasizing conservative values hasn’t been a winning national strategy for Republicans recently as the public’s mood on issues like gay marriage has changed. And it’s not clear that Carson can change the dynamics even with his compelling biography and hero status among some African-Americans.
But his story and approach, which includes his assessments of what ails inner city neighborhoods, could change some of the conversations within the GOP.
“Dr. Carson is a voice and an influencer inside the Republican party. They can’t ignore him. He has something that is so special they need him to build their coalitions,” said Armstrong Williams, a top Carson aide. “If you go to Dr. Carson’s speeches, if you go to his book signings, you can always find 20 to 30% African Americans in that audience.”
Bakari Sellers, a Democratic state lawmaker in South Carolina who has endorsed Hillary Clinton, called Carson an “American hero” but said Carson’s policies don’t line-up with many African-Americans.
Still, he warned that Democrats will have to do more than re-assembling Obama’s 2008 and 2012 coalition if they want to succeed in 2016.
“It’s not something that can be done overnight, it’s going to take some work and attention,” he said. “Clinton has started to do that already when she touched the hearts of all people who care about the fact that young men of color are dying and getting incarcerated.”