Over the weekend, Texas Republican representative Lamar Smith penned an interesting column for the Washington Post arguing that the GOP's haul among Hispanic voters was "historically robust." Is this conclusion correct? If so, what does it mean, about both 2010 and the future of the Republican party?
I think Smith's conclusion here is sound, and the 2010 midterm election indicated that, increasingly, both political parties have to forge a multi-ethnic/multi-racial voting coalition if they hope to acquire the majority. In my opinion, this is a more challenging task than either liberals or conservatives have recognized.
To begin, let's look at the parties' performances among Hispanic voters in the nationwide House ballot going back to 1994. The following chart tracks the percentage of Hispanic voters in the electorate, how each party did with them, and a final column that I call "Net Dem Haul." That's the key line, for it asks how many points did the Democrats margin of victory among Hispanic voters contribute to their national margin. So, for instance in 2010, 8 percent of the electorate was Hispanic, and the Democrats won Hispanic voters by 22 percent; thus, the "Net Dem Haul" was 8 percent X 22 percent = 1.8 percent. That means that the Democrats haul among the Hispanic vote closed the Democrats' nationwide margin of defeat by 1.8 points.
As we can see, Smith's point is valid. The GOP's share among Hispanic voters in the nationwide House ballot was the best it has been since 2004, and the Democratic haul from the Hispanic vote was also substantially reduced relative to 2008 or 2006. Yet all is not sweetness and light for the GOP. Notice that the Democratic margin of victory in 2010 among Hispanics was about the same as it was in 1994, yet the Democratic haul was greater this year than in 1994. This is because Hispanics have more than doubled as a share of the popular vote. Hold the margin of victory constant and double the size of the bloc, and the Democrats won a larger net haul simply because of population changes.
Demographic projections are not the stuff of destiny, but they point pretty conclusively to the expectation that the Hispanic share of the electorate will grow over time. If that happens, then the net Democratic haul will increase, even if the Republicans remain comfortably in that 30-40 percent share of the electorate. This is why it is important for Republicans and conservatives to craft a compelling message that puts more Hispanic voters in play.
This is good news for Democrats over the long run, but liberal analysts -- like those who promote the enduring Democratic majority thesis -- tend to make too much of this. For starters, they regularly make a category error -- lumping all racial and ethnic minorities into a "non-white" category. The problem with this is that Hispanics differ in important respects from African-Americans, whose voting patterns tend not to shift with the political winds, and almost always favor the Democrats by 90-10. As you can see, the GOP's margin among Hispanics in the House has ranged from 26 percent to 44 percent, so this voting bloc is in play in a way that the African-American vote simply is not. I would say that there is essentially no hope that the GOP will have a major breakthrough with the African-American vote, barring some unforeseen and significant circumstance, but on the other hand a carefully crafted message to Hispanic voters could all but neutralize the Democratic advantage with this bloc, as happened in 2004.
Democrats have another problem, which is that as their hauls among Hispanics has increased, they are doing much worse with white voters. The following chart replicates the Hispanic chart, only this time for white voters. Also, “Net Dem Haul” has become “Net GOP Haul” because Republicans have been regularly winning the white for for some time now.
Notice the GOP haul among white voters in 2010, clocking in at 60 percent. This is something that, not too long ago, some advocates of the demography-is-Democratic-destiny thesis explicitly dismissed. In the fall of 2009, Emory University's Alan Abramowitz argued that a repeat of 1994 was "highly unlikely" because "there are important differences between the makeup of the American electorate now and the makeup of the American electorate then." In part:
Based on the 2008 results and the projected racial make-up of the 2010 electorate, Republican candidates would have to win almost 60 percent of the white vote in order to win 50 percent of the overall national popular vote in 2010. That would be even more than the 58 percent of the white vote that Republican candidates received in 1994 and much more than the 54 percent of the white vote that Republican candidates received in the 2008 House elections.
Well, the Republicans won the white vote by 60 percent, and ended up exceeding by about 10 seats their 1994 haul. The broader lesson here is one that RealClearPolitics' David Paul Kuhn has been making for a while, most elaborately in his important book on the subject: The Democrats have a real problem with white voters.
So far, the Democratic advantage from the rise of Hispanic voters has been more than met by the Republicans' increasing fortunes among white voters. Indeed, the Democratic net haul among Hispanic voters from 1994 to 2010 increased by 1.1 points, while the GOP net haul among white voters increased by 3.9 points. In other words: advantage Republicans.
At least for now. It's very possible that the Democrats will continue to hold 60-70 percent of the Hispanic vote while it gets larger and larger, meanwhile they could hold 40 percent of the white vote while it gets smaller and smaller. Over time, this could result in a sustained Democratic advantage. I wouldn't necessarily put my money on that, mostly because I think holding together such a multi-racial/multi-ethnic voting coalition will be more difficult than a lot of liberal Democrats believe. But it is possible.
This is why Republicans need to focus like a laser beam on appealing to the Hispanic bloc. Heading into 2012, I think a reasonable goal for the GOP should be to win 40 percent of the Hispanic vote -- and if party organs like the NRCC, NRSC, and RNC are not already doing it, they should be sponsoring more extensive polling investigations of the Hispanic community to find out ways in which the Republican message can be tailored to better appeal to this bloc. And perhaps most importantly, the GOP ought to recruit Hispanic candidates, who scored smashing victories in statewide contests in Florida, New Mexico, and Nevada this year.
As an analyst who is limited to public data only, there is very little I can say about which voters in the Hispanic community are more likely to vote Republican, beyond relatively obvious assertions like Cuban-Americans are more prone to support the GOP. The reason is that in a survey of 1,000 people weighted by census demographics, just about 120 Hispanics will be included, which is hardly sufficient. This rising bloc of voters deserves extensive study by conservatives and Republicans, and I hope the outlets who could be doing this kind of research are actually doing it.