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Scholar Outlines The Long, Rocky Road Of GOP Outreach Efforts

Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., speaks on Oct. 22, 1977, in Atlanta. A political scientist says the GOP has suffered some missteps in its outreach efforts to certain voters since at least the time of Dole.

One of the most interesting observations we've seen regarding the Republican National Committee's latest effort to win the hearts and minds of minorities, women and young voters was to be found on a blog that promotes a political science textbook written by professors Joseph Bessette and John J. Pitney Jr.

Titled "GOP Outreach: A History," the post by Pitney, who teaches at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., provides snippets of news coverage of past GOP attempts to appeal to some of the same demographic groups the party acknowledges it is struggling to connect with today.

It starts back in 1977, when a poor word choice by Kansas Sen. Bob Dole eclipsed his attempts to woo an audience of African-Americans to the Republican Party. He used the word "spades," though he meant it innocently enough.

While later Republican officials have not had that degree of misfortune, Pitney's list is a stark reminder that the attempt to expand the party's membership outlined by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus Monday follows many others that have come up relatively empty.

"We've seen this movie before," Pitney said in an interview."The Republican National Committee has frequently mounted outreach efforts over the past several decades. The big question is whether this time will be different."

Asked to posit an answer to that question, Pitney said: "I don't know. Chairman Priebus seems very sincere. He's devoting serious resources and one would hope that he would learn from the mistakes of the past."

Pitney witnessed some of those mistakes firsthand. He worked for the RNC as deputy director of research when it was run by Lee Atwater, the South Carolina political operative whose political tool kit was filled with anything he could use to slash or burn opponents.

Atwater encouraged the use of the infamously race-baiting Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential race, for instance. Later, when Atwater was the RNC chairman, he found that blacks hadn't quite gotten past such campaign tactics.

"I think Chairman Priebus would have to do some heavy convincing," Pitney said. "I used to work at the Republican National Committee and I watched the Atwater effort up close. And it didn't have much by way of concrete results. He had his faults but he was very serious about this.

"I think the difference this time is that there's a broader realization among Republicans across the board that they have a problem. So that might be one difference. But only time will tell. However, history is not encouraging on this point."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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