When the initial national exit polls showed an increase in Hispanic turnout and support for President Obama, political commentators immediately resolved that Romney's deeply conservative immigration stance doomed him. The “immigration” explanation, or perhaps excuse, quickly easily attracted bipartisan support. The argument satisfied Democrats who had long anticipated a Latino surge to inaugurate a new era of Democratic dominance in national elections. And the immigration excuse was quite convenient for Republicans of all brands, minus Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan, and Tom Tancredo. The establishment wing of the Republican Party supported comprehensive immigration reform all along, and pinning the blame on immigration reform allowed true conservatives to avoid questioning deeply held position closer to the core of their beliefs.
Certainly, Republicans need to improve with Latino voters, and quickly. The Latino share of the electorate is poised to increase incrementally in every election for the foreseeable future, raising the GOP's burden with Hispanics each year. Romney's performance among Latino voters was abysmal, and it wasn't helped by his stance on immigration reform. But the immigration explanation for Romney's defeat isn't quite as good as it sounds. As mentioned over the last few days, the GOP also fell short of their benchmarks with rural Midwesterners, voters in well-educated and affluent suburbs, and African Americans. Hispanic voters were just one of many components of Obama’s victory, not an overriding factor. The GOP will have miscalculated the breadth of their challenge if they adopt immigration reform as their one-plank plan for recapturing the White House in 2016
The numbers illustrate the folly of relying too much on a Latino turnaround to produce a Republican victory. Obama leads the national popular vote by about 3 points, but the exit polls indicate that Hispanics represented just 10 percent of the electorate. Finding 3 points worth of gains in 10 percent of the electorate is extraordinarily challenging: for Republicans to win the popular vote by means of Hispanics alone, they’d need to gain a net-30 points among Latino voters, reducing Obama’s 44 point lead to just 14 points. While there’s nothing wrong with the GOP aiming high for 2016, it’s very difficult to imagine Democrats falling beneath 60 percent of the Hispanic vote in a competitive national race. Republicans will need to compliment improvements among Hispanics with plenty of gains among other demographic groups.
And the importance of the Hispanic vote is diminished by the Electoral College. While Hispanic voters were truly decisive in Florida, Latinos are inefficiently concentrated in non-competitive states, like Texas and California. In many battleground states, the Hispanic vote plays a vanishingly small role. Obama won New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Iowa by a larger margin than the Hispanic share of the electorate, suggesting that Obama would have won if Romney had won every Hispanic voter in those states. The exit polls suggest that Hispanics represented just 3 and 5 percent of the electorate in Virginia and Ohio, only slightly more than Obama’s 2 and 4 point margins of victory. Even in the southwestern states where the Latino vote has played a critical role in the recent fortune of Democratic candidates, Obama’s strength among non-Hispanic voters in Colorado and Nevada gave Democrats breathing room to withstand considerable losses among Hispanic voters.
Here’s a simple way of looking at it: if Hispanics swing 20 points in the GOP’s direction in every swing state, Obama would have won the Electoral College by a 303-235 margin. While losses among Hispanics would cost Obama his narrow win in Florida, even a net-20 point GOP gain wouldn’t swing Colorado or Nevada. Even if it did, Obama would have still won through either Virginia or Ohio.
And although “evolution” on immigration reform is probably prerequisite to any serious GOP effort to repair its support in the Hispanic community, many commentators have correctly observed that moving to the left on immigration isn’t a panacea. There are many reasons why Hispanics lean-Democratic, and it’s an open question whether concessions on immigration reform could erase the memory of a half-decade’s worth of immigration fights. It might also be significant that the state where the Latino vote figures most prominently into Republican fortunes is Florida, the state where immigration might be expected to have the least importance, since Puerto Ricans and Cubans are probably less connected to the immigration debate than Hispanics originating in Mexico or Central America.
The Republicans have a Hispanic problem. But they also have a problem with young voters, African Americans, affluent suburbs, and the rural Midwest. A winning GOP coalition in 2016 will involve gains with each of these groups, not just one. And if Republicans assume that a quick flip flop on immigration reform will produce massive gains among Hispanics, they'll probably be disappointed.