The GOP has an opportunity to win over Hispanic voters in 2016—and the party needs them. Here’s how to do it.
When Cory Gardner was persuaded by national Republican leaders to run for the Senate in Colorado against incumbent Democrat Mark Udall, he was a latecomer to the race. Mr. Gardner was a one-term House member and the 2014 midterm election was eight months away. And it was soon discovered from a U.S. Chamber of Commerce poll that Mr. Gardner had a problem: Colorado’s population is 22% Hispanic and the poll found that Mr. Gardner was supported by only 11% of Hispanic voters, a dismal showing.
Mr. Gardner says he was “unknown to the Hispanic community” yet determined to increase his visibility. He appeared at Hispanic events. He was respectful of Hispanic values and sympathetic with difficulties facing Hispanic families. He advertised on Spanish-language radio and TV. Jeb Bush cut a TV spot for him in Spanish, Marco Rubio one in English. Mr. Gardner advocated immigration reform that included beefed-up border security and a guest-worker program.
There were important things Mr. Gardner didn’t do. He didn’t call for a special path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Nor did he identify himself with liberal positions, such as broader spending and welfare policies, that Hispanics supposedly favor.
His support soared among Hispanics. Exit poll data for Hispanics on election day is not available, but in an Oct. 26 NBC/Marist Poll, he was favored by 44% of Hispanics to Mr. Udall’s 48%. In an Oct. 30 Denver Post/SurveyUSA poll, Mr. Gardner trailed Mr. Udall among Hispanics by only three points, 43% to 46%. And he did well in two of Colorado’s most heavily Hispanic counties, with 45% of the overall vote in Pueblo and 44% in Adams. By any reckoning, this was a remarkable achievement by Mr. Gardner and a shock to Democrats.
As expected, Democrats won the Hispanic vote nationally, 62% to 38%, according to CNN exit polls. But Mr. Gardner wasn’t the lone Republican in defying the trend. The exit poll in Texas showed that Sen. John Cornyn beat his Democratic opponent 48% to 47% among Hispanics, while Gov. Greg Abbott got 44%. Both were elected. In Georgia, 42% of Hispanics voted for David Perdue, who won the state’s open Senate seat, and 47% backed Gov. Nathan Deal.
Hispanic governors were re-elected with relative ease. In Nevada, Brian Sandoval captured an astonishing 7l% of the overall vote. Susana Martinez of New Mexico won with 57%. Exit poll results for Hispanic voters were not made public.
Mr. Cornyn’s success was a surprise because he had voted against the “Gang of Eight” comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013 before stalling in the House. Further, he opposed President Obama’s executive order freeing millions of illegal immigrants from deportation. Hispanic voters, attuned to immigration debates in Washington, must have been aware of this.
Any harsh criticism of immigrants who have come here illegally gets their attention. “The idea that Republicans can rip into illegal immigrants without antagonizing Hispanic voters is delusional,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres noted in his book “2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America.” He has surveyed Hispanic voters extensively.
Mr. Ayres says an intemperate attack on illegal immigrants by a Republican will be exploited by Democrats and amplified by the media, particularly Spanish-language talk show hosts. This is why Republicans were worried about Donald Trump’s denunciation of immigrants from Mexico. Indeed, his attack became a national story.
Mr. Cornyn’s tone is far different from Mr. Trump’s. “He doesn’t use harsh language,” Mr. Ayres told me. “He doesn’t run against Hispanics. His message is, ‘We want you as part of our team, our center-right coalition.’ ” Mr. Cornyn says he wants to pursue immigration reform in 2017, after Mr. Obama departs.
The Republican low with Hispanic voters was reached by Mitt Romney in 2012. He got 27% of Hispanics nationally and lost to Mr. Obama by five million votes. By my rough calculations, had he matched President George W. Bush’s 44% among Hispanics in 2004, Mr. Romney would have lost by around one million votes, perhaps a bit more.
“If the Republicans could have won 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, that would have erased 3.6 million net votes—or 72 percent of the 4.96 million they lost by,” writes Matt Barreto, a UCLA political science professor. “Republicans don’t need to win the Latino vote outright, they just need to stop losing it so badly.”
At my request, Mr. Ayres calculated how Mr. Romney would have done in Florida if he had matched President Bush’s performance in 2004. Republicans probably can’t win the presidency without Florida. It has a large Hispanic population, of which Mr. Bush won 56%. Hispanics were 15% of the Florida electorate.
In 2012 Mr. Romney got 39% of Florida Hispanics, who had grown to 17% of the total vote. Doing as well as Mr. Bush would have given Mr. Romney an additional three percentage points overall, Mr. Ayres suggests, and he would have captured Florida by “the same margin as Bush in 2004.” In other words, Mr. Romney would have won the state 52% to 47%, instead of losing it 49% to 50%.
In 2016 the issue for Republicans is how to win at least 40% of Hispanics, the likely minimum needed to capture the White House. Insisting on “comprehensive” immigration reform with a path to citizenship isn’t required, but reform that deals with Hispanic concerns is. In the Virginia Senate race last year, GOP candidate Ed Gillespie drew an enthusiastic response by advocating “fresh visas” for Hispanics who qualify. Similarly, Jeb Bush now favors legalization of illegal immigrants who have not broken U.S. laws after arrival, no more.
Political demographers claim Democrats are on the verge of locking up the Hispanic vote as surely as they have the African-American vote. I doubt it. But Republicans have no serious alternative to going after Hispanics. In 2012 there were 23.7 million Hispanics eligible to vote. By 2030, the number may reach 40 million. A Republican strategy based on increasing the party’s share of the white vote is foolhardy. The GOP has maxed out on the white vote.
The key to attracting Hispanics is not a secret. They should be treated like any voting bloc. It starts with outreach and organizing. Republicans should be respectful of their needs and interests. Tone matters. Enacting some form of immigration reform is necessary. Using the Spanish-speaking media is critical in elections. So is being visible in the Hispanic community. Learning to speak Spanish helped Republican Rep. Mike Coffman win re-election in his district in the Denver suburbs.
If all that fails, call Cory Gardner.
Mr. Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, is a Fox News commentator.