The GOP's Hispanic Problem Is Bigger Than They Think

A volunteer with Mi Familia Vota assists Harvey Stroh with voter registration papers at the Hadley Branch Library in Denver Photograph by Matthew Staver/The New York Times via Redux

The day after President Obama’s decisive reelection, Republicans of every stripe were already coalescing around a reason why they’d lost and a prescription for what they’d need to do to compete again. Most concluded that their party’s hostility toward Latinos—one of the country’s fastest-growing demographic groups and one Mitt Romney lost 75-23, according to an exit poll conducted by Latino Decisions—had cost them the White House. The presumptive fix was to relent and get behind an idea many conservatives have stubbornly resisted for years: comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million immigrants in the country illegally.

This pivot was most jarringly apparent in the case of Sean Hannity, the Fox News personality and talk-radio host whose angry nativism amplified and reinforced the outlook Mitt Romney was appealing to when he said last spring that “illegals” should “self-deport.” Last Thursday, Hannity announced that he’d “evolved” and now supports citizenship for undocumented immigrants. “We’ve got to get rid of the immigration issue altogether,” he told his radio listeners.

At the same time, Hispanic Republican elected officials, such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio and incoming Texas Senator Ted Cruz, are enjoying new prominence. Although he hasn’t even been sworn in yet, Cruz has already agreed to serve as the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s vice president of grassroots operations and political outreach.

And that, in a nutshell, is the plan to “put a sombrero on the Republican elephant,” as one GOP operative characterized it to Politico. The job really isn’t all that difficult, conservatives like Charles Krauthammer insist, because Latinos are “a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented, and socially conservative (on abortion, for example).”

Any effort by Republicans to curb their ugly rhetoric and take practical steps to solve knotty issues like immigration reform is bound to improve the party’s abysmal standing with Latinos (and minorities generally). But it probably won’t be enough to allow Republicans to compete in earnest for minority voters, who currently identify overwhelmingly as Democrats.

That’s because minorities’ alienation from the Republican Party goes far beyond language and immigration to the very heart of the conservative worldview. Take the repeal of Obamacare, a conservative rallying point that was central to Romney’s campaign. The Latino Decisions exit poll showed that by a large margin, 61-25 percent, Hispanics want to keep the health-care law in place. On the other great Republican obsession, deficit reduction, Hispanics once again differ sharply with Republicans about what to do: 77 percent of Hispanics want to pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthy or combining higher taxes with spending cuts; only 12 percent favor cuts alone. And contra Krauthammer, they don’t share the Republican position on abortion: Exit polls showed that 66 percent of Hispanics believe abortion should be legal, a higher percentage than the population overall.

Whenever reporters pointed out these kinds of obstacles, the Romney campaign would reply that Hispanics and other minorities were going to vote on the basis of their economic interest. Unemployment, for example, is much higher among Hispanics and African-Americans than it is among whites. The Romney campaign ending up being right about this: Hispanics said their most important issue, easily eclipsing immigration, was “jobs and the economy.” But they still voted Democrat.

A survey last year by National Journal/Heartland Monitor goes a long way toward illuminating why. Minorities tend to view government as a positive, and effective, facilitator of economic opportunity and prefer that it take an active role in regulating the marketplace. Whites generally don’t share this view. Asked about government’s role in the economy, 64 percent of white Republicans said that “government is the problem.”

Over the last few years, as Republican leaders like Romney began to adopt the anti-immigrant malice of the fringe, the party was also moving further rightward on economic issues. Ending the characterization of minorities as greedy moochers who feel entitled to “gifts” from the government, as Romney put it in a call to his major donors on Wednesday, would be a good way to begin tackling the first problem. But the harder challenge for Republicans will be to acknowledge—and then to address—the second one.

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