WASHINGTON – Can Republicans win the next presidential election without getting more Hispanic votes? It’s a question that has obsessed the party since 2012. It’s also the wrong question.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of Hispanics’ votes when he lost in 2012, to President Barack Obama’s 71 percent. Romney’s defeat convinced a lot of Republicans that they had to court Hispanics by passing legislation offering citizenship, or at least legal status, to most illegal immigrants. So said a lot of big Republican donors, who tended to favor that kind of immigration reform to begin with. The “autopsy” prepared for the Republican National Committee echoed this conclusion. Even Donald Trump said Romney had lost by alienating Hispanics.
Opponents of the so-called reform pointed out numerous defects in the strategy. Republicans who favored some form of legal status, such as 2008 presidential nominee John McCain, had also done poorly among Hispanics. The critics warned that support for such policies might drive turnout lower among white working class voters who otherwise favored Republicans.
The biggest defect of the strategy turned out to be that it was incapable of being implemented. Conservative opposition ran too strong. The Republican House refused to pass the legislation. Marco Rubio, one of its sponsors in the Senate, turned against it. The presidential candidate who has topped the polls of Republicans for months, Trump, has been saying he will deport all illegal immigrants (and then take many of them back, but not many people have picked up on that). Sen. Ted Cruz, who comes second in polling averages, now says that he will never offer legal status to illegal immigrants.
Even Cruz, though, says that to win in 2016 Republicans need to get 40 percent of Hispanics’ votes — the same magic number other Republicans cite. Evidently he believes he can win Hispanics who either themselves oppose legalization or who favor it but consider other issues more important.
Hispanic voters are not as crucial to Republicans as conventional wisdom has it. Romney would still have lost the election if he had won 40 percent of Hispanics. He would have lost, for that matter, if he had won a majority of these voters, something Republicans have never done. To win, Romney would have had to do a bit better than even Obama did among Hispanics.
It would make a real difference, on the other hand, if Republicans increased their share of white voters by only a few percentage points. RealClearPolitics has an interactive tool that allows for simulating different election scenarios for 2016. It suggests Republicans would win the popular vote and Electoral College if they took 3.3 percent more than Romney from whites — even if everything else about the party’s performance stays the same.
So maybe Republicans should just hunt for new white supporters? No mainstream voice has advocated that strategy, even if it sometimes feels as though it’s one the party has fallen into. A Republican surge among white voters and only white voters is more realistic than a Hispanic landslide for Republicans. But it’s still far-fetched.
Romney performed very well among whites, for one thing. What would help Republicans improve on his showing without affecting nonwhite voters? Taking a harder line than Romney on immigration might not boost white support: Most white voters are open to a path to citizenship. And there’s no reason to think Romney’s dismal share of Hispanic and Asian voters represents a floor for Republicans.
The most plausible winning formula for Republicans in 2016 would involve their performing at least somewhat better among all racial groups. In the RealClearPolitics tool, input the average turnout rates for each group over the last three elections. Then assume that Republicans get 9 percent from black voters, 32 percent from Hispanics and 35 percent from Asians and others — all numbers lower than the percentages President George W. Bush won in 2004.
In that case Republicans would just need to do two points better among whites to score their biggest electoral win since 1988, carrying Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
I’m not predicting that anything like this will happen. Reality won’t be as neat as an electoral model, with voters from each racial group moving in sync across state lines.
What this simulation suggests, rather, are four points. First: Republicans do not absolutely have to get 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to win. Second: Republicans have no good reason to obsess about Hispanic voters to the exclusion of black and Asian voters. Third: If Republicans end up winning, it will probably be because they improved in all racial groups, albeit unevenly, which is what they did in elections from 1996 through 2004.
And fourth: Instead of thinking about voters in racial categories at all, Republicans should probably make the case that their agenda would turn out better than the Democratic one for most people — and make that case to voters of all races. The question Republicans should be asking themselves is not how to do better with this or that racial group, but how to make that basic case.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review, where he covers national politics.