12/12/2013 08:18 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Obama's Falling Latino Support Creates a Rare Opportunity for the GOP


For Republicans, the cause of the Electoral College map's increasing hostility can be traced to the party's inability to seriously compete for the country's now-large Latino population. Battleground states like Nevada and New Mexico have moved out of range while states with large urban and immigrant populations like New York, California and Illinois have only become more hostile.

During my four years as state Republican Chairman in California, not once did a Republican legislator or Congressman ask me about what the party was doing to improve the performance of its candidates among Latino, Asian, and African-American voters. Our statewide candidates, by contrast, were intensely interested.

Why the difference? Eventually it became clear that many Republican lawmakers didn't consider earning Latino support to be an urgent priority because for them, in their districts, there wasn't a "Latino problem." Indeed, in the lopsided districts from which most of our legislators were elected, they could lose every single Latino vote and still win by a healthy margin.

Republican statewide candidates in California, by contrast, have to compete in a "district" that is over 38-percent Latino. This creates the Republican Party's structural problem when it comes to getting serious about building a wining majority: Legislators elected from safe, lopsided districts have a different set of priorities than national or statewide candidates in states like California in New York, who need a broader coalition in order to win.

GOP lawmakers who would like the opportunity to actually have their bills signed by a Republican president need to take seriously the job of expanding the party beyond just a majority of their own district to a majority of the nation. And President Obama has just given them their opportunity, although not by design.

Gallup last week released a shocking statistic: President Obama's support among Latinos has plummeted by 23 percentage points in the last 11 months, from 75 percent in December 2012 to 52 percent today. For every three Latinos who supported the president last year, only two support him today.

Indeed, Latinos have left the president in larger numbers than any other demographic group.

There is no way to spin this into anything other than a big problem for the president and his 2014 Democratic candidates, and an equally large opportunity for Republicans.

According to Gallup, "Hispanics' approval ratings of Obama have shown the most variation of any group's ratings throughout his presidency. That means their views of him are less firmly anchored than those of other groups...." In other words, Latinos were never totally sold on President Obama in the first place, and they're more likely to sour on him. Given the universal embarrassment of Obamacare, it's not difficult to see how voters not firmly committed to the president would turn against him.

The reverse should also be true: If the president is seen as delivering on something of value, his support among Latinos should improve, with benefits for his fellow Democrats as well. Passage of immigration reform for which Democrats can take the bulk of the credit holds such a possibility.

Gallup provides an important lesson for Republicans: Latinos are "more volatile" and therefore less reliable for Democrats than other groups. It is what Gallup describes as "a troubling sign for the Democratic Party."

The Electoral College map will not improve for Republicans until this problem is solved It's a question not of politics or ideology but of mathematics. Fortunately for Republicans, there are positive examples in leaders like Republican Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, who was elected in the most heavily Latino state in the nation, and one where the Democrat advantage in registration is 4 percentage points larger than in California. Gov. Rick Perry in Texas, another heavily Latino state, won reelection with at least 37 percent of the Latino vote. Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey won nearly half of Latinos in his reelection last month.

Taking advantage of the door that President Obama has opened among Latinos will require more Republican lawmakers to make it a priority, even if their own reelection doesn't depend on winning Latino votes.

Political parties are defined nationally. What Republican elected officials in Washington do defines the party for everyone wearing the jersey, not just for themselves. Republicans have an opportunity to begin earning Latino support again. The Gallup numbers show that Latinos are listening. The question now is what Republicans will say.