And though leery of the expense of campaigning in Texas and of the solidly Republican bent of its white population over the past 15 years, these Democrats remain distantly fascinated by the state, where a majority of all adults are minorities and where Hispanics accounted for two-thirds of the population growth since 2000. “Anglos still dominate the [Texas] electorate and will for a while longer, but every election for the rest of your lifetime will have a higher percentage of Latinos and a lower percentage of Anglos than the previous one,” says sociologist Stephen Klineberg of Rice University.
Given Obama’s difficulties among whites, he has no certainty of reaching even the humble levels with these voters in 2012 that the NJ analysis suggests he will need to win the battleground states. In Virginia and New Jersey, the 2009 Democratic gubernatorial candidates fell short of the numbers Obama would need to win those states under the NJ projection. So did the 2010 Democratic Senate candidate in Florida. In Pennsylvania, losing Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak just barely cleared that bar, although he attracted a level of support from working-class whites that Obama will struggle to match. In 2008, Obama came close to the mere one-fourth of the white vote he might need to win Georgia next time by NJ’s scenario, but he fell well short of the 35 percent we projected he would need in Texas and the 47 percent he might need in Arizona.
Like many Republicans, DuHaime is especially dubious that Obama can put states into play in 2012 that he lost in 2008. “In many ways, 2008 was a best-case scenario for Democrats,” he says flatly. “If President Obama didn’t make the inroads into Georgia and Texas in 2008, he is not going to do it in 2012.”
Of course, Obama doesn’t need to add those states to his win column; it will be a tactical victory if he simply forces Republicans to spend money and time to defend them. To win the presidency, Republicans must capture states that Obama won in 2008. And few GOP strategists would probably want to bet the White House solely on holding down Obama’s vote among whites to the levels the NJ analysis suggest might be required for the GOP to retake enough of those states to reassemble an Electoral College majority.
So even if Obama’s support slips among whites, Republicans will face a tough uphill climb if they cannot capture more minority votes. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami-based GOP consultant, asserts that Republicans cannot win if they allow Obama to keep two-thirds of the Latino vote he attracted in 2008. The first step toward turning some of that support, he contends, is aggressively pursuing those voters with Spanish-language advertising. “Some Republicans say, ‘We do not want to advertise in Spanish because it sends the wrong message,’ ” he says. “We need to get to them, no matter what channel they are watching, or magazine they are reading.” And once Republicans have Hispanics’ attention, Curbelo insists, they must make the case that Obama abandoned his 2008 promise to emphasize comprehensive immigration reform. “There is a gaping hole in the president’s campaign,” he argues.
Democrats doubt that GOP candidates will find many takers for that argument, given that the Republican Party, renouncing the position of George W. Bush, has coalesced almost uniformly against any pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The Democrats can be counted on to highlight that hard-line position by forcing a Senate debate on immigration before 2012. “The Republicans don’t have an obvious candidate who is really able to erode Obama’s strength in this emerging electorate,” Rosenberg says.
Given Latinos’ growing electoral importance and the GOP’s sharp right turn on immigration issues, some senior Democrats privately say they would not be surprised if Republicans try to solve their challenge in a single stroke by picking a Hispanic vice presidential nominee in 2012. In 2008, Obama became the first national leader truly thrust forward by America’s changing demography. In 2012, if Republicans look to also surf that wave, first-term Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, could be the next.
Scott Bland contributed
This article appears in the April 2, 2011, edition of National Journal.