Before the ink was dry on the 2014-midterm election results, talk shifted to 2016. For the first time in eight years, both parties will be nominating fresh representatives who will attempt to sell their vision to an electorate largely disenchanted with both Democrats and Republicans. But while most of the coverage has been focused on the prospective candidates, perhaps a more telling view could be found if that lens pointed at the electorate.
Earlier this week, Center for American Progress released a study entitled "The Changing Face of America's Electorate." The numbers show what many Republicans fear, and what their own post-2012 election autopsy told them: that if the GOP does not make dramatic inroads with people of color, especially Hispanics, their chances of winning national elections are close to zero. The minority share of the voting population will increase significantly in several key swing states by 2016. Victories for President Obama that were narrow in 2012, such as Virginia and Colorado, could be out of reach for the GOP. States like North Carolina could flip back to blue on demographic changes alone.
CAP's study reminds the reader that the minority vote did not always swing the way it did in the Obama years. As recently as 2004, George W. Bush captured 40% of the Hispanic vote, compared to McCain's 31% and Romney's 27%. However, their 2016 simulation shows that under projected demographic changes, even if minority voter preference shifts back to 2004 levels, it might not be enough to win a presidential election.
This information puts Republicans in a tough position. Just today, Republicans in the House put forward a bill that would defund President Obama's November executive action at the risk of shutting down the Department of Homeland Security at the end of the month if no compromise is reached. The directive, which will defer deportation for five million undocumented Hispanics, is backed by 89% of Latinos. As their own autopsy stated, "If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn't want them in the United States, they won't pay attention to [the GOP's] next sentence." It seems clear that Republicans on the Hill have not and will not heed that dire warning.
But even if the tea-party members on in the House don't need the Hispanic vote to secure their reelections, they cause headaches for statewide and national Republican candidates. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has urged his party to take up comprehensive immigration reform and to pass their own immigration legislation after repealing the President's executive action. Without it, he says, a Republican in the White House in 2016 will be "difficult, if not impossible." And without a candidate that Hispanics feel shares their priorities, immigration tops among them, the shifting demographics of Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, et al will give them a much more prominent stage to voice their dissatisfactions.
It seems hard to believe that the Democrats would put forward a candidate that would not sit well with Latinos. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee, has backed the President's executive action, and polling shows that 85% of Latinos support her if she continues to support those policies. The onus, then, is on the Republicans, who last cycle famously nominated a candidate caught supporting "self-deportation." Prospective 2016 nominees run a wide range on the issue. Chris Christie has bent over backwards to avoid a position. Rand Paul tried to curtail the President's executive action, framing it as a constitutional issue, but supports immigration reform in theory. Jeb Bush, who ran up strong Latino support in his 1998 Florida gubernatorial victory, similarly supports allowing more legal immigration, as long as the legislation comes from Congress.
No matter what these potential candidates say now, the test will come in what promises to be a grueling Republican primary. Republicans must put forward a candidate that does not turn away huge swaths of Latino voters that regard immigration as a single-issue vote. But to win nomination, they must appease a base that has not given any indication that their priorities align with those of the Hispanic voter. Recent history tells us that the Latino vote can hugely impact a presidential election, particularly in key swing states. CAP's study shows that the 2016 path will likely hinge on it.
-Joe Velasquez, NCLR Action Fund Executive Director