The GOP’s Hispanic Nightmare

Republicans’ minority outreach problems go way, way beyond immigration.

Antonia Gonzalez of Seattle a Latinos for Obama hat during the DNC. The Democrats have a decided advantage with Latino voters.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

White people are still very important to Democratic Party politics, providing 56 percent of Barack Obama’s vote Tuesday night. But Obama’s 39 percent of the non-Hispanic white vote is less than Michael Dukakis got, and a major party’s lowest share in history. It didn’t matter because the other ethnic groups grew as a share of an electorate and Obama won an overwhelming percentage of their votes. Key to this, of course, was the growth of the Latino vote, which has more than tripled its share of the national electorate over the past quarter century. According to exit polls 10 percent of 2012 votes came from self-identified Hispanics, and they delivered a crushing 71-27 percent edge for Obama over Mitt Romney.

The Latino vote was especially crucial in Colorado, which has in the past decade become a liberal bastion that sends two Democratic senators to Washington, has a Democratic governor, and has twice delivered its electoral votes to Obama. Fourteen percent of the state’s voters are Latino, and 75 percent of them went for Obama. In Nevada, it was 18 percent and 70 percent. In New Mexico, the 36 percent Latino electorate seems to have put the state out of reach for Republicans. More ominously for the GOP, the Latino population continues to both grow and grow more Democratic.

In the past, predictions of a brown wave delivering a permanent majority to Democrats have always struck me as a bit misguided. As the Hispanic population grows, it also gets more assimilated and less “Hispanic” (take me for example), so the Democratic advantage seemed likely to wane. But Al Gore’s 62 percent of the Latino vote in 2000 has instead grown even as the Hispanic vote share increased.

Pundits are quickly turning to immigration to explain the Republicans’ Latino problem and to offer a possible cure, but the reality is that the rot cuts much deeper. The GOP doesn’t have a problem with Latino voters per se. Rather, it has a problem with a broad spectrum of voters who simply don’t feel that it’s speaking to their economic concerns. The GOP has an economic agenda tilted strongly to the benefit of elites, and it has preserved support for that agenda—even though it disserves the majority of GOP voters—with implicit racial politics.

Consider the GOP’s deeply racialized campaign against Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. What was so surprising about this—and I know I’m not the only fair-skinned English-dominant person with a Spanish surname who was genuinely shocked—was that conservatives could have easily opposed her purely on policy grounds. Sotamayor is a fairly conventional Democrat on constitutional issues, and that would have been ample reason for conservatives to criticize her. Indeed, Justice Elena Kagan was attacked on precisely those grounds. But rather than tempering opposition with at least some recognition that Sotomayor’s life story might be a great example for immigrant parents trying to raise children in difficult circumstances, the country was treated to a mass racial panic in which Anglo America was about to be stomped by the boot of Sotomayor’s ethnic prejudice. The graduate of Princeton and Yale Law, former prosecutor, and longtime federal judge was somehow not just too liberal for conservatives’ taste but a “lightweight” who’d been coasting her whole life on the enormous privilege of growing up poor in the South Bronx.

Polling suggests that the Latino problem for the GOP is deeper than immigration. John McCain got a scant 31 percent of the Latino vote despite a long record of pro-immigration policies. The best evidence available on Hispanic public opinion, a big election even poll from Latino Decisions and ImpreMedia, makes it clear that this is just a fairly liberal voting block. Just 12 percent of Latinos support a cuts-only approach to deficit reduction, and only 25 percent want to repeal Obamacare. Only 31 percent of Hispanics say they’d be more likely to vote for a Republican who supports the DREAM Act. This isn’t to say Latinos aren’t eager to see immigration reform, it’s just that the lion’s share have bigger reasons for rejecting the GOP.

Indeed, perhaps the most telling exit poll result about Hispanics is the almost identical thumping Romney took with Asian and Jewish voters, and even more so with black voters. … Gerald Ford got 17 percent of the black vote while losing overall, while Romney won less than 10 percent. As Tom Scocca wrote last week, all kinds of people vote Democratic, and it’s the Republicans who rely on a narrow ethnic niche to win. The real issue isn’t Democrats courting minority “special interests” (indeed, as an economic matter Latin American immigration is good for everyone except Americans who primarily speak Spanish), it’s Republicans who use targeted outreach to help boost their share of the white vote despite a generally unpersuasive message. Viewed in that light, the anti-Sotomayor demagoguery becomes far more comprehensible. Far from an unforced error, it’s part of a reasonably effective strategy to ensure the loyalty of white voters without altering an economic agenda that’s relentlessly biased toward the rich.

This is genuinely too bad. There are some smart ideas in the Republican Party platform and bad ideas in the Democratic one. There are plenty of realms—ranging from occupational licensing and anti-density zoning, to discrimination against mobile homes, crackdowns on food trucks, and strangling of taxi innovators—in which America could benefit from a little more free-market thinking. But these are rarely points of emphasis in Republican campaigns. And while I’ll even say the GOP is right to want to preserve regressive tax breaks for investment income, clearly a policy agenda composed primarily of tax cuts for the top 2 percent or 3 percent of the income distribution doesn’t have much to offer the broad mass of people.

Latinos aren’t into that agenda for roughly the same reason that Asians and African-Americans aren’t—absent the frisson of worry about the “white establishment” being forced into minority status—it’s just not very compelling. To do better, Republicans don’t need a different immigration policy or better Hispanic outreach strategy, they need an overall policy that’s more compelling to the middle class and will help them do better with voters of all kinds. In fact, endorsing immigration reform now might make things worse for them, by enlarging an electorate that’s fundamentally hostile to their worldview.