11/13/2012 10:42 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Romney and the Republicans Lost the Latino Vote


DREAM Act demonstrators at the final GOP debate in Arizona

Although there were many rhetorical points upon which the Republican Party lost Latinos, there were three that were uniquely vitriolic to the Latino community: vetoing the DREAM Act, SB 1070 and "self-deportation." This is what handed Obama his victory and, had the rhetoric on Latino issues been reversed, we may very well have a different president come inauguration day.

Many were predicting doom for Obama as 59 percent (Romney's share) of the white vote would have been enough in previous elections; however, Mitt Romney wound up winning more of the white vote than anyone who ever lost before. This is because Obama won 93 percent of the black vote, 71 percent of the Latino vote and 73 percent of the Asian vote. A large portion of the Latino vote, a key piece of his coalition, was won on immigration with both rhetoric and policy.

The conflict created between conservative Latinos and Republicans over SB 1070 can best be summed up by a DREAM Act demonstrator speaking with a conservative Cuban working for Romney in Florida: "Dude, we may be taken for Cuban in Florida, but in Arizona, Arpaio's posse might think you're Mexican and ask you for your papers. Do you carry your immigration papers with you?" He had nothing to say to that.

When measures similar to SB 1070 were instituted in Virginia and Alabama, immediately the politics got ugly locally. Thanks to national campaigns by Latino groups, Republican politics were unable to keep the effect of SB 1070 and similar laws to their affected areas; they became national news, including in places where a strong Latino vote keeps their representatives from returning to congress after embracing such rhetoric.

The DREAM Act is often seen as the least the right end of the immigration debate can give up, that is, easing up on enforcement against people whose only crime was crossing the border when they were children, some as young as infants. No matter how many times a Republican drops the words "legal immigration" or "illegal immigration" it doesn't make the DREAMers any less sympathetic; it doesn't remind people any less of the friend or family member they have who has a difficult immigration situation, as there are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country now, and everybody knows someone. This could be why Univision and FOX News puts Latino support for the DREAM Act at 90 percent; Latinos often consider it a litmus test, believing anyone who can't sign off on the DREAM Act is unreasonable on immigration.

"Self-deportation" was accurately denounced by Marco Rubio as "... not a policy." What it is, rather, is a strategy to deny the DREAM Act, push laws like SB 1070 through state legislatures, prevent states from offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants and do everything else possible to chase undocumented immigrants out, without paying to kick down their doors and drag them to the border on the taxpayer dime. Again, not something you want to tell a voter you have planned out for their friends and cousins.

On the 11/07/2012 episode of Rachel Maddow, we were treated to a long list of things that we would not be doing under the Republican administration that was clearly not given a mandate of any sort: "... we are not vetoing the DREAM Act, we are not 'self-deporting...'" These are only a few of the reforms that Latinos can expect to break in their favor: Republicans cannot win Latinos while not budging on issues like SB 1070, the DREAM Act and "self-deportation"; it's simply not possible, and Mitch McConnell can't rally them to fight against Obama by doing nothing for another four years.

While Republicans have had some voices for immigration reform like Richard Lugar and Marco Rubio, Lugar was beaten in his primary by Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock, and Marco Rubio hasn't been able to overcome obstacles like Lamar Smith in rallying his party to immigration reform. Lugar may never have an opportunity to lead in the Senate again; however, Rubio still exists as a potential voice of Latino leadership within the party.

Rubio pledged to offer something without the pathway to citizenship in the DREAM Act, but, with his entire party being pushed to the left or dying on the issue, he may be able to sign off on the DREAM Act and jump to the left of his previous lukewarm positions on SB 1070. Since Rubio's already rejected "self-deportation," with just a little tweaking, Rubio could bring in a strong Latino coalition. This can only work, however, if he can gain the support of the same grassroots Latino groups that pushed so hard against Mitt Romney by offering them things like the DREAM Act or a federal ban to SB 1070 legislation while simultaneously rallying his remaining votes in Congress, no easy feat considering who he has to work with.

Whether the Republican Party will move on minority issues like the DREAM Act is uncertain, but there are strong implications of this election. The first is that coalition politics will lead the way from now on in national elections, and the GOP will not be able to harness the old, white male vote and ride that alone to victory. Also, it can't insulate itself as effectively from lone nuts spilling vitriolic rhetoric on minority groups in a town where there can still get you elected (like Joe Arpaio and Jan Brewer in Arizona), because this year the extreme rhetoric coming from Arizona on immigration hurt every Republican who had a Latino district.