There were two big demographic questions facing Mitt Romney and the GOP going into Tuesday’s election — how many Hispanics would turn out to vote, and how many of them would choose Romney?
It turns out that the answers to both of those questions provoked more pressing questions of their own about the Republican Party’s future. Hispanic turnout set a record, but the Republican’s share of that vote slipped to its lowest mark since Bob Dole’s bid for president in 1996.
According to CNN exit polls, Hispanics composed 10 percent of the voting electorate on Tuesday and picked President Obama over Romney, 71 percent to 27. That number was lower than the Romney camp’s expectations. In August, the campaign told The Hill it wanted to win 38 percent of the voting bloc.
It was also down from 2008, when Hispanics made up 9 percent of the population and supported Obama over GOP nominee John McCainJohn McCainPundits react: Clinton won first debate Overnight Defense: Debate night is here | Senate sets vote on 9/11 veto override | Kerry, McCain spar over Syria Kerry fires back at McCain: I'm not 'delusional' MORE, 67 percent to 31.
The GOP’s erosion in support from Hispanic voters was especially costly in Florida. In 2008, Hispanics made up 14 percent of the vote in the Sunshine State. On Tuesday, that grew to 17 percent. Meanwhile, in 2008, McCain won 42 percent of Hispanics in that critical battleground, while on Tuesday, Romney won only 39 percent, according to early returns.
Romney’s fall was even more dramatic in Colorado. While Hispanic turnout increased by only 1 point in the state, Romney came up well short of McCain’s performance. In 2008, McCain managed to snag 38 percent of Hispanics in Colorado. Romney only got 23 percent on Tuesday.
In Florida, Virginia and Nevada, Romney scored better than McCain with whites, but in all three states, whites composed a smaller portion of the electorate than in 2008, while Hispanic numbers grew. The reality in battleground after battleground state is this: The GOP’s base is shrinking, while the Democratic base is expanding.
So why was the carnage so extensive, and what can Republicans do about it?
The most glaring answer to the first question is that Romney moved to the right in the GOP primary on everything from the DREAM Act to deportation policy and didn’t have much breathing room to pivot in the general.
What made it all the more damaging is that, at some level, his takedown of Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the Republican primary was attributed to his move to the right on immigration. That may have formed a bad first impressions among many Hispanic activists. Romney pilloried Perry for supporting the DREAM Act as governor, and while Romney reaped short-term gains, the cost was heavy.
On Tuesday night, columnist Charles Krauthammer traced Romney’s troubles with Hispanics to that seminal moment. “Romney made a huge tactical error when he went to the right of Rick Perry during the primaries and took a fairly extreme position on immigration that he could not retreat from,” he said on Fox News.
Meanwhile, Fox’s Brit Hume echoed Krauthammer’s criticism. “The Republican Party’s going to have to ask itself if the hard-line position that Mitt Romney assuredly took during the primary season … is, in the long run, a winning position for them,” he said.
And thus, two conservative thought leaders hardly known for mushy moderation characterized Romney’s position on immigration as “extreme” and “hard-line.” When sympathizers are that unsympathetic, it shows just how much water Romney took on for his move to the right.
But the problem for the GOP is that the party’s problem with Hispanics doesn’t seem to end with Romney’s candidacy. In other words, it seems to be a political, not personal, problem.
Polls show that Hispanics sync up with Democrats on more issues than just immigration. According to Gallup, healthcare actually ranked as the most important issue to Hispanics this election season, and on that issue, they favored Obama, 70 percent to 15. In fact, Obama actually scored slightly better with Hispanics on healthcare than he did on immigration. Meanwhile, a Latino Decisions poll showed that 73 percent of Hispanics said they’d rather keep Medicare as is even if it means raising taxes.
But if all that seems too dire for Republicans, they can comfort themselves with this: The GOP has two star senators who happen to be Hispanics from massive states, Marco RubioMarco RubioGlenn Beck: I was wrong about Ted Cruz Senate rivals gear up for debates Rubio: End of Obama's term could be 'most damaging yet' MORE in Florida and now Ted CruzTed CruzThe Trail 2016: Fight night Google backs Obama's internet transition plan Steve King asks: Will Clinton be ‘on her meds or off her meds’ for debate? MORE in Texas, and both can certainly speak to the demographic in a way that an older white Northeastern governor never could.
Meanwhile, Republicans also have the nation’s most popular governor, Susana Martinez, in New Mexico. Hispanics make up a whopping 46 percent of the population in the heavily Democratic state, and Martinez’s popularity is proof that the GOP can connect with the group at the state level.
Now, about that pesky national level …
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.