The big story out of Tuesday’s election is that Republicans finally understand that they cannot win as a lily-white party any more. Smart Republicans have been warning about this for some time, but many of their political strategists deluded themselves that the largely nonwhite coalition that elected Barack Obama in 2008 was a fluke—which was the key reason for so many wrong predictions of a Mitt Romney victory among right-wing pundits such as Larry Kudlow (330 electoral votes for Romney) and Dick Morris (325 EC votes for Romney), as well as bad polling by Republican pollsters such as Rasmussen. But is the GOP capable of embracing nonwhites when they have no experience or strategy for doing so? The very survival of the party at the presidential level depends on whether it can do so.
According to the Census Bureau, there are 56 million Hispanics in the U.S. including Puerto Rico. Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, their numbers increased by 20 million—an increase of 43 percent. Just between 2010 and 2011, the Hispanic population grew 1.3 million—more than half the nation’s total population increase of 2.3 million in that period. The Hispanic share of the population has risen from 3.5 percent in 1960 to 17 percent and is projected to rise to 29 percent in 2050. The white non-Hispanic share has fallen from 85 percent to 63 percent and will continue to fall to 47 percent by 2050.
It is not as if Republicans have been blind to the problem. Ronald Reagan enacted amnesty for any illegal immigrant entering the country before 1982 partly to appeal politically to the growing Latino population. George W. Bush proposed immigration reform because his principal political adviser, Karl Rove, foresaw the need for Republicans to reach out to the Latino community. But Republicans in the Senate killed it.
The rejection resulted from anti-immigrant hysteria among grass-roots Republicans, which had been brewing since at least the 1990s and led the state of California to enact a ballot initiative in 1994 designed to keep illegal aliens from using public services and hence discourage them from entering the state. Although Republicans, led by Gov. Pete Wilson, thought they were protecting their political position, the principal long-term effect was to deeply alienate the growing Latino population from the GOP that has now given Democrats an overwhelming majority in the legislature as well as the governorship. Obama won our largest state so easily that Romney didn’t even contest it.
The result of anti-immigrant attitudes has led to a steadily declining percentage of Hispanics voting Republican. And I say “anti-immigrant” rather than “anti-illegal-immigrant” because grass roots Republicans also oppose an increase in H1B visas to allow more legal immigrants, despite repeated demands by businesses to permit more highly-educated foreigners to live and work here. The irony is that such people are often educated at American universities and thus take their extraordinarily valuable human capital with them when they are kicked-out.
Romney is too smart not to know that his proposal for “self-deportation” was a non-starter, but he was forced to take a hard line on immigration to win the Republican presidential nomination because primary voters insisted upon it. When he saw that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign imploded after he made mildly pro-immigrant comments in a debate, Romney had no other choice.
Today, Republicans are talking bravely about going after the Latino vote, but not by doing anything substantive. They plan to just try harder to explain to Latinos why cutting taxes for the rich and slashing benefits for the poor—the twin pillars of Republican economic policy—will somehow benefit them.
There is also talk of putting the party’s only high-profile Latino, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is of Cuban descent, into a leadership position. However, there is no evidence that he appeals to Latinos generally or that such tokenism is effective unless backed by policies that the GOP remains opposed to.
Of course, Republicans can and should do a better job of reaching out to Latinos and probably could increase their vote total by doing commonsensical things like getting their candidates to learn Spanish, having their pollsters employ Spanish-speaking operators to get better data, getting more input from the Hispanic community, and understanding the diversity of the Latino population, which is divided among Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and many other nationalities with different interests.
However, Republicans also need to understand that their racial problem isn’t only with Hispanics. Before 1964, they routinely got a third of the black vote, but Barry Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 dropped that to about 10 percent—5 percent in the Obama era. Republicans cannot continue to give-away 95 percent of the votes of our second largest minority population.
Perhaps even more disturbing for Republicans is that the fast-rising Asian population also appears to be cementing itself in the Democratic column. George W. Bush got 41 percent of the Asian vote in 2004, which fell to 35 percent for John McCain in 2008. This year, Romney got just 26 percent of the Asian vote. Basically, it is on the same trajectory as the Hispanic vote, despite a widespread Republican view that Asians share their philosophy.
Embracing immigration reform is no quick fix for Republican problems. While it is the central issue, it is more that the party lacks an attitude of inclusion. That will be hard to change given that the nation’s population is becoming increasingly polarized, geographically. Republicans seldom encounter many minorities as peers in their communities from whom they can learn, and Republican congressional districts don’t contain more than a trivial number of minorities due to gerrymandering.
Making the GOP racially inclusive will take hard work, but it is essential to the party’s future. It will be impossible for it to ever win the White House again unless it does so, as the minority population inexorably rises and the white percentage continues to fall.