By Tim Alberta, National Journal
Republicans widely acknowledge that in order to take back the White House in 2016, they must make steady gains in winning back Latino voters, only 27 percent of whom supported Mitt Romney in 2012.
But Whit Ayres, a prominent Republican pollster who will work for Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, says the party has to do much better much faster. Ayres told reporters Tuesday morning that the Republican nominee must capture more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2016 to win the presidency—and suggested that his candidate is uniquely positioned to do so.
“A Republican nominee is going to need to be somewhere in the mid-forties, or better, among Hispanic voters,” Ayres said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. The pollster noted that his candidate is “extraordinarily talented” and could be “transformational” in expanding the GOP’s appeal.
That would represent a quantum leap from 2012, when Romney won just 27 percent of Latinos—a major reason for his electoral drubbing at the hands of President Barack Obama. Romney’s abysmal numbers were even a drop-off from John McCain, who took 31 percent of Latinos against Obama in 2008.
Latinos (who made up 8.4 percent of all voters in 2012) are the fastest-growing segment of the American electorate; they are a major reason why the nonwhite share of the overall vote has increased in each of the past six presidential elections. On the flip side, the white share has diminished in each of those past six cycles. These shifting demographics meant that even Romney’s dominance among whites—who preferred him to Obama by a spread of 59 percent to 39 percent—were not enough to defeat, or even closely challenge, the sitting president.
Ayres predicts that Republicans will need to win “somewhere around 30 percent, almost a third, of the nonwhite vote overall” to take back the White House in 2016. With black and Asian voters trending sharply away from the GOP, Ayres says claiming a significant share of Latinos is the key to reaching that 30 percent mark. “Unless you count on the Republican getting Ronald Reagan-like numbers among whites,” Ayres said, “you’re going to have to be somewhere in the mid-forties with Hispanics.” (Reagan won 66 percent of whites en route to his historic 49-state victory in 1984.)
Republicans of every ideology acknowledge that their nominee must perform better among Latinos in 2016 if they hope to reclaim the presidency. The question is one of degree: How much better? George W. Bush won 44 percent of Latinos in his 2004 reelection—a number that some party operatives believe to be unattainable. Much of the talk has centered on steady improvement with Latinos, while counting on white voters to remain hostile toward the Democratic Party in the post-Obama era.
But Hillary Clinton, who performed well among whites in her failed 2008 primary campaign, looms as the Democratic nominee. Because of that, many Republicans—Ayres included—believe the only way to recapture the White House is to win back a large portion of the Latino vote.
Romney, who infamously prescribed “self-deportation” to resolve the issue of illegal immigration, may very well have represented rock-bottom for the GOP’s outreach to Latinos. But less than two years out from the 2016 general election, the party still faces significant problems on the policy front. Polls show that Republicans are still broadly viewed as hostile to Latinos, due primarily to positions on immigration. The numbers also show that Latinos view Democratic-passed programs such as the Affordable Care Act favorably. Rhetoric is also seriously problematic for the party, with presidential candidates being forced to answer for every insensitive comment made by an officeholder over the past few years.
“I loved watching Michael Jordan play basketball, because he could do things with the basketball that were not teachable,” Ayres, a University of North Carolina alumnus, said. “Marco Rubio is the Michael Jordan of American politics. And anyone underestimates his ability at their peril.”
Rubio, the bilingual son of Cuban immigrants, has a proven record in Florida of winning Latino votes. He also speaks softly, in humanitarian terms, on the issue of immigration, and could hold a unique appeal to the Latino community as a glass-ceiling-breaker in his own right. This profile, Ayres argued, could wipe away instantaneously the mistakes of Romney and the harmful Republican rhetoric of years past.
“Republicans are one candidate and one election away from resurrection,” Ayres said. Later, he added, “The Republican nominee in 2012 will redefine the Republican Party in his or her image.”
This is the bet that Ayres, and by extension, Rubio are making: If the GOP’s image is that of a young, bilingual Latino who preaches immigration reform with an inclusive tone, then nothing is impossible. Not even a 15- or 20-point improvement among the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc.