ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Republican strategist Ed Gillespie is pushing hard for the Republican Party to change its attitude toward Hispanics. He's a student of voting data, and the numbers tell a clear story: If Republicans don't make up ground over the next decade with Hispanic voters in the U.S., they are toast.
"If the Republican nominee for president in 2020, which is not many cycles away, gets the same percentage of the Latino, African-American and Asian-American vote that John McCain got in 2008 ... our nominee would lose by 14 percentage points in 2020," Gillespie said during an interview in his spacious second-story office, in a row house here about a 15-minute drive from downtown D.C.
Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and senior White House adviser to George W. Bush, knows the numbers inside out. He recites what has become a mantra: McCain, who lost the 2008 election to President Obama by 7 points, got only 31 percent of the Hispanic vote, down from George W. Bush's take of at least 40 percent in 2004 (some say it was 44 percent).
When asked where the GOP went wrong with Hispanics, he points a finger in the general direction of the McCain campaign: "My sense is that we did not focus as strongly in 2008 as a party, or in the presidential campaign, as we had in 2004."
But Gillespie's command of the data was most on display when he talked about how the Hispanic share of the electorate will expand.
"African Americans, as a percentage of the vote, are essentially equal -- a little bit of variance -- to their percentage of the population. Hispanics are 16 percent of the population but only 9 percent of the vote," Gillespie said. He predicts that gap will shrink, with or without further Hispanic immigration. "Over time that is going to close without any single person coming here from another country," he said.
"It's partly age because that demographic skews younger," he noted. "Like I said, 23 percent of the population, 17 and younger, are Hispanic, as opposed to 16 percent as a whole. So age is a part of it. But it's also less participation, partly less maturation in the political process. And as Latinos become more integrated into our society and our country, they're going to register in bigger numbers and become more actively participate in the political process."
Gillespie made outreach to minorities a focus of the party when he ran the RNC, but feels the GOP took its eye off the ball, something he alluded to when talking about 2008. Certainly the 2007 debate over immigration reform showed a side of the Republican Party that was angry about illegal immigration. Any proposal to fix the problem -- including then-President Bush's plan -- was immediately labeled as "amnesty." The party came off looking like it was opposed not just to illegal immigration but also to immigrants in general, Gillespie said.
"Sometimes it sounded anti-immigrant," Gillespie said. "And that turns people off."
He avoided blaming racial prejudice for the GOP's predicament.
"I don't think it's a matter of racism or xenophobia. I think it's more tone, and what people hear and how they hear it," he said.
In advance of the 2012 election, Gillespie is recruiting 100 Hispanic candidates to run for seats in state legislatures across the country. And he said that the 2012 Republican presidential nominee will need to focus on Florida and the southwest states.
"They have to go campaign there, and campaign vigorously, and communicate. We need to be on Telemundo and Univision and all of the Spanish language radio markets in some of the urban areas and get our message out," he said. "Hispanics have been particularly hard hit in this economic downturn. I have seen in focus groups and in polling data increasing disaffection for amongst Hispanic voters with President Obama. I think there's an opening there. I think our message of job creation, economic growth, upward mobility and opportunity, education reform, will resonate with Hispanic voters. We have to vigorously take that message to them."