Mitt Romney got crushed by President Obama among Hispanic voters. He captured just 27% of them while the president hauled in 71%, nearly tying his party’s 30-year high. This lopsided margin, combined with the slow but inexorable increase in the Hispanic share of the voting population, has led to commentary from seemingly all directions telling the GOP that it must—must—find a way to win these voters over.
But how? A few points to keep in mind:
1. Although this year’s Republican showing among Hispanics was bad, it was still better than the party’s nadir during the 1992 and 1996 campaigns, when the first George Bush captured 25% of the Hispanic vote and Bob Dole managed a measly 21%.
2. Growth of the Hispanic voting population has been very, very slow. In 2004, Hispanics made up 8% of the electorate. In 2012, they made up 10%. It took Hispanics 8 years to increase their proportion of the electorate by 2%. Moreover, the nation’s bad economy over the last four years has slowed down the rate of immigration, so fewer new Hispanics are entering the political system than during the 2000’s.
3. As my colleague Andrew Rugg points out separately, it is vital to realize that Hispanics care about more than just immigration. According to the Pew Research Center, the top 4 issues in the 2012 election among Hispanic voters were the economy (60%), health care (18%), the budget deficit (11%), and foreign policy (6%).
Of course, Hispanics do care about immigration more than the average American voter. And there are signs here that the Republican Party needs to reevaluate its position if it wants to have a chance with Hispanics. According to the exit polls, 77% of Hispanic voters said that illegal immigrants should be offered a chance to apply for legal status while just 18% of them said these folks should be deported. Compare that to an overall rate of 65% in favor of legalization and 28% who want them to be deported.
Immigration is a threshold issue for Hispanics. They care about other issues more, but for them this isn’t a theoretical or hypothetical situation: Fully 60% of Hispanics who voted this year say they know undocumented immigrants. For them, GOP criticism of illegals as a drain on our nation’s resources are direct attacks on people they know. According to Latino Decisions and impreMedia, 31% of Hispanics would be more likely to vote Republican if the party supported comprehensive immigration reform.
4. Most Hispanic voting behavior can be explained primarily by non-ethnic considerations. For example, as the chart below shows, there was a wide difference in voting behavior among Hispanics making less than $50,000 and those making more. This tracks with overall voting behavior, which shows that poorer Americans favor Democrats while wealthier Americans favor Republicans. Likewise, young Hispanics were more likely to vote Obama than older Hispanics, just as with all Americans overall. This implies that Hispanics are a fairly standard political constituency overall, they just happen to lean more towards the Democrats as a whole than white voters.
Bottom line when it comes to Hispanics: They are a vital and growing voting bloc, but they care about the same issues as other Americans. Because of their demographics—they tend to be younger and poorer than the average American—they gravitate naturally to the Democratic Party. Moreover, the GOP’s hostile tone on immigration turned them off from the party and has made them unwilling to even consider voting for their policies. After all, even if you agree with a politician’s policies, if you believe that he dislikes people like you or wants to deport your aunt, you’re not going to vote for him.