Almost immediately after President Obama’s decisive reelection, Republicans of many stripes coalesced around the idea that they had lost because of the party’s hostility toward Latinos. And to some in the GOP, there was a quick and obvious solution: to “put a sombrero on the Republican elephant,” as one skeptical Latino GOP operative characterized it to Politico.
The job really isn’t all that difficult, many conservatives insisted. Charles Krauthammer argued that Latinos are “a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example).” So never mind Mitt Romney’s assertions last spring that “illegals” should “self -deport”; after years of stubborn resistance to comprehensive immigration reform, angrily nativist conservatives like Sean Hannity suddenly got behind it and the path to citizenship it offers to12 million illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile, Hispanic Republican elected officials have become the party’s new darlings. Ted Cruz has not even been sworn in yet as the next US senator from Texas, but he has already agreed to serve as the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s vice president of grassroots operations and political outreach.
Any effort by Republicans to curb their ugly rhetoric, put new faces forward, and take practical steps on immigration is bound to improve the party’s abysmal standing with Latinos (and minorities generally). But it probably won’t be enough to allow Republicans to compete in earnest for minority voters, who currently identify overwhelmingly as Democrats.
That’s because minorities’ alienation from the Republican Party goes far beyond language and immigration to the very heart of the conservative worldview.
Take the repeal of Obamacare, a conservative rallying point that was central to Mitt Romney’s campaign. An exit poll by the firm Latino Decisions showed that by a large margin — 61 percent to 25 — Hispanics want to keep the health care law in place. On the other great Republican obsession, deficit reduction, Hispanics once again differ sharply with Republicans about what to do. Seventy-seven percent want to pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthy or combining higher taxes with spending cuts; only 12 percent favor cuts alone.
And despite what Krauthammer thinks, Hispanic voters do not share the Republican position on abortion. Exit polls showed that 66 percent of them believe that abortion should be legal, a higher percentage than the population overall.
Before the election, whenever reporters pointed out these kinds of obstacles, the Romney campaign would reply that Hispanics and other minorities were going to vote on the basis of their economic interest. Unemployment, for example, is much higher among Hispanics and African-Americans than it is among whites. The Romney campaign ending up being right about this: Hispanics said their most important issue, easily eclipsing immigration, was “jobs and the economy.” But they still voted Democratic.
A survey last year by National Journal/Heartland Monitor goes a long way toward illuminating why. Minority voters tend to view government as a positive, and effective, facilitator of economic opportunity and prefer that it take an active role in regulating the marketplace. Whites generally don’t share this view. Asked about government’s role in the economy, 64 percent of white Republicans said that “government is the problem.”
Over the last few years, as Republican leaders like Romney began to adopt the anti-immigrant malice of the fringe, the party was also moving further rightward on economic issues. Ending the characterization of minorities as greedy moochers who feel entitled to “gifts” from the government, as Romney put it in a call to his major donors on Wednesday, would be a good way to begin tackling the first problem. But the harder challenge for Republicans will be to acknowledge — and then to address — the second one.
Hispanics are disproportionately poor and uninsured. With Obamacare now the law of the land, conservatives might turn to finding constructive ways to help people into the middle class. One way to do that could be through programs emphasizing education; majorities of Hispanics and African-Americans see education as the most important factor in improving their economic circumstances. Of course, any advances the GOP made in this direction could only help its appeal with white voters, too.
Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.