Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Latino Threshold

Where the GOP needs Latino votes and why

Thomas F. Schaller, Guest Columnist February 17th, 2011

In the days immediately following the 2010 midterms several indisputable trends for the cycle were apparent. Voters were most concerned about the state of the economy, particularly unemployment, as well as the federal budget deficit. The Tea Party movement was the key, ground-level political force. And although the exact sums and sources were uncertain, tens of millions of newly-legal dollars were injected into campaigns courtesy of the Supreme Court’s 2009 Citizens United ruling.

But within a month of the results, one electoral controversy slowly and rather quietly emerged: Were Latino voters trending Republican or not?

Three weeks after the election, Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas—a state where President George W. Bush proved that a Republican could win Latinos—boasted on the Washington Post op-ed page that Republican House candidates did better in 2010 than in the 2006 midterms or any cycle other than Bush’s 2004 re-election high watermark. “This level of Hispanic support for Republican candidates came despite widespread pre-election claims by advocates for illegal immigration that the Arizona law and a pro-rule-of-law stand would undercut Hispanic support for Republicans,” wrote Smith, citing strong Hispanic support for Republican candidates Marco Rubio, Rick Scott and Sharron Angle. “Hispanics certainly share [fears about the economic pressures of illegal immigration] with all other American workers, and Hispanic workers face the impact of illegal immigration head-on.”

A week later, Post syndicated columnist Edward Schumacher-Matos responded that Smith was engaging in “political wishful thinking” because he made two mistakes with respect to the data. “One is that the [2010] midterm result is far below the 44 percent of the Hispanic vote that George W. Bush got in 2004, and … nowhere near the 45 percent that party strategists know they need to compensate in the future for the declining Anglo share of the vote,” he wrote. And the second, wrote Schumacher-Matos, was that exit polls unreliably overestimate Republican support among Hispanics.

The ongoing controversies about the level of GOP support among Latinos, and its importance for Republican competitiveness, took on new significance after 2004 when disputes arose as to whether Bush actually received 44 percent of Latino votes. If we set aside these methodological disputes, the ultimate question is how competitive the GOP must be among Latinos. And the answer to that question is three-fold.

First, as the white share of the electorate shrinks, the share of the Latino vote Republicans need to remain competitive will gradually inch higher. It is axiomatic that if one party attracts a minority share of votes from any group or subset, if that subset is growing as a share of the electorate these losses are magnified. Republicans get roughly the same share of the vote from Asian Americans as Latinos. But GOP losses among Asian Americans are less punitive overall because the Asian American vote is smaller and growing less fast as a share of the electorate than are Latino voters.

Second, whatever threshold the GOP needs to maintain—40 percent, 45 percent—will zigzag up and down a bit between midterm and presidential elections. Because midterm electorates trend older, whiter and more affluent, until and unless the Democrats can find ways to mobilize presidential-cycle voters in off years, the GOP’s Latino competitiveness threshold drops slightly in midterms before rising again in presidential years.

Finally, the Latino vote is of course not uniformly distributed across districts and states. So the calculus varies depending upon geography. In states where Latino voters are paired with significant African American populations—such as Florida, New York or Texas—the Republican cutoff is higher; where Latinos represent the bulk of non-white voters—such as Colorado or Nevada—the threshold is easier to reach.

Now let’s apply these three components of the equation to the big question for 2012: Will Latinos stick with Obama, or at least at rates sufficient for his re-election?

During the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton won about two-thirds of the Latino vote against Obama. In the general election, Obama captured about two-thirds of Latino votes against Republican John McCain.

Latino support was critical for Obama in four 2008 swing states he won that will now have a combined 46 electors: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico. As Latino Decisions’ Matt Barreto points out, if Obama holds all four states in 2012, he can afford to lose North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia from his 2008 coalition and still win re-election so long as he carries every state both he and John Kerry did. In fact, thanks to added electors in the Southwestern states, Obama can squeak by with 272 electors even if he loses Florida too.

No doubt aware of Latinos as his potential electoral backstop, Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor to become the first Latina Supreme Court justice. Is Obama’s Latino support holding steady?

On Monday, impreMedia and Latino Decisions released a new survey showing a strangely bifurcated answer to this question: Although 70 percent of Latinos approve of Obama’s performance as president, only 43 percent say they will for certain vote for him in 2012. Of the poll results, impreMedia pollster Pilar Marrero writes that “doubts about the president and the Democrats are not turning into support for the Republicans.”

To win re-election, President Obama must close the sale again with Latinos during the next two years. But if recent numbers from Public Policy Polling in key swing states are any indication, at least in potential head-to-head matchups against Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and (most especially) Sarah Palin, Obama is in as good a shape if not better in all four of Latino-pivotal swing states.

Beyond Obama’s fate, in general if Republican candidates in statewide contests for governor or U.S. Senate in heavily-Latino states can maintain support in the mid-40s, the Democrats are in deep trouble. This is especially true in states where the African American and/or Asian populations are small—such as in the Southwest—because there the GOP’s white voter advantage is sufficient to win statewide.

Smith and Schumacher-Matos can argue over the specifics: Whether the 2012 Republican presidential candidate needs to get 40 percent or more, and what set of policy positions on the economy and immigration will bring GOP presidential or statewide candidates to that level. But the post-2010 bottom line is not much different from what it was before either Barack Obama or the Tea Partiers arrived on the national scene: Republicans don’t need to carry the Latino vote—yet—but in the near term, and particularly in presidential cycles, they need to stay reasonably competitive.

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South and national political columnist for the Baltimore Sun. Schaller’s book about the Republican Party after Ronald Reagan’s presidency is forthcoming from Yale University Press.