Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Romney's demographic bind

By Reihan Salam, CNN Contributor
October 5, 2012 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Mitt Romney (left) and his running mate, Paul Ryan, wave to supporters Thursday in Fishersville, Virginia.
Mitt Romney (left) and his running mate, Paul Ryan, wave to supporters Thursday in Fishersville, Virginia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Reihan Salam: Mitt Romney and GOP relying on white voters more than ever
  • He says their diminishing appeal in African-American, Latino communities is a big risk
  • Salam: Growing nonwhite population could turn some red states into swing states
  • He says it will be hard for GOP to get a higher share of white vote or to appeal to minorities

Editor's note: Reihan Salam, a CNN contributor, is a columnist for Reuters; a writer for the National Review's "The Agenda" blog; a policy adviser for e21, a nonpartisan economic research group; and co-author of "Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream."

(CNN) -- Wednesday's presidential debate might very well give Mitt Romney a significant boost, but the former governor still faces a difficult path.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the 2012 election is that Mitt Romney might win a substantial majority among white voters while still losing the presidential election. Regardless of the outcome of this election, the rising minority share of the electorate will force a deep rethinking of Republican strategy.

Back in 2008, John McCain won 55% of the non-Hispanic white vote against 43% for Barack Obama. It is worth noting that Obama increased the Democratic share of the white vote by 2 percentage points relative to Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.

Opinion: To woo Latinos, Romney needs specifics

Reihan Salam
Reihan Salam

At the same time, Obama won 95% of the African-American vote, an increase of 7 percentage points compared with Kerry, and 66% of the Latino vote, an even more impressive increase of 13 percentage points. As Ron Brownstein, editorial director of National Journal and a CNN contributor, has observed, Obama's success among minority voters has put the Republican presidential nominee in a demographic bind.

If we assume that Obama's support among black and Latino voters won't dramatically erode between now and November, Romney will have to outperform McCain by a substantial margin among white voters to win the presidential election. In light of recent Democratic success among college-educated white women and Romney's relatively weak performance among noncollege-educated white voters outside of the South, this will prove challenging.

We see some of these dynamics at play in down-ballot races. In recent weeks, the prospects of a number of Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate have deteriorated.

One of the bigger disappointments for the GOP is the growing gap in the polls between former New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson, a Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Air Force veteran who is rightly regarded as having been one of the party's most talented female officeholders, and Rep. Martin Heinrich, the Democrat who now represents Wilson's old congressional district.

Opinion: It's immigration, stupid, say Latino voters in Nevada

Republicans have long understood that New Mexico would be a tough race for them. Though a Republican, the charismatic Mexican-American prosecutor Susana Martinez won the state's gubernatorial election in 2010 by a margin of just under 7%, while Barack Obama won New Mexico's electoral votes over John McCain in 2008 by an impressive 15-point margin.

Candidates' tones change after debate
Super PAC spending to the rescue
Romney's post-debate donation bump
Granholm: 'Big Bird lives!'

So what might account for the differences in how Martinez and Wilson have been received by New Mexico voters? Part of the story is undoubtedly the fact that the electorate in midterm races tends to be smaller and older than in presidential years, which are more favorable to Democratic candidates.

Another part of the story, however, is that the ethnic composition of New Mexico's electorate has also changed. That is, Latinos will likely represent a somewhat larger share of the electorate in 2012 than in 2010, and it is a safe bet that this share will increase over time.

An Anglo Republican such as Wilson is by no means doomed to fare poorly among Latino voters. George W. Bush, for example, attracted a large share of the Latino vote in New Mexico and in the United States as a whole. Yet Martinez seems to have made deeper inroads into the Latino electorate than Wilson.

Democrats appear to be consolidating recent gains in the largest Latino ethnic groups, including the vitally important Mexican-American constituency. The choice of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to give this year's keynote address at the Democratic National Convention was presumably made with this point in mind.

A recent report by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the center-left Center for American Progress -- "The Path to 270 Revisited" -- carefully documents the rising importance of America's nonwhite electorate to the outcome of presidential elections.

Opinion: Romney shakes up the race

Along with Colorado and Nevada, New Mexico is part of a vitally important swing region that had until recent years been Republican-leaning. Teixeira and Halpin argue that the changing demographic composition of these states, and in particular the rising Latino share of the electorate, is a key reason why they have become friendlier terrain for Democratic candidates.

Yet Teixeira and Halpin demonstrate that this dynamic doesn't apply just to the Southwest. In a number of so-called New South states, for example, the rising Latino share of the electorate is occurring alongside an increase in the African-American share of the electorate.

Given the fact that the African-American electorate tends to strongly favor Democratic candidates, there is a distinct possibility that a number of states now considered reliably Republican, such as Georgia, might become competitive in the not-too-distant future.

These larger trends raise two possibilities for future Republican candidates. One is that the GOP should work toward building substantially greater support among white voters. Even as the white share of the electorate decreases, winning a larger slice of a shrinking pie is a viable strategy. The biggest hurdle to this strategy, however, is the cultural polarization of the white electorate.

Among younger white voters, for example, socially liberal views on issues such as same-sex marriage are quite common while older white voters, who have been a bedrock of GOP support, tend to embrace socially conservative views. Reconciling these positions might prove difficult.

Leaving age differences aside, college-educated white voters tend to be less receptive to cultural populism than noncollege-educated white voters.

Although many analysts have suggested that Republicans should embrace liberal positions on various social issues to appeal to college-educated white voters, this might endanger the party's hold on less-educated whites. Some attribute Romney's relatively poor performance among noncollege-educated white voters to a campaign message that caters more to the concerns of tax-sensitive voters than to less affluent voters.

The second possibility, championed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush among many others, is that Republicans should redouble their efforts to appeal to Latino voters.

This strategy is often associated with the view that Republicans should embrace comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a majority of whom are of Latin American origin.

Opinion: The audacity of Romney's Etch a Sketch

It is not obvious, however, that this strategy would yield significant political dividends, and it would alienate voters who believe that creating a path to citizenship would undermine the credibility of future immigration enforcement efforts.

A deeper look suggests that when you compare Latinos with non-Hispanic white voters of the same income level, the edge that Democrats have among Latinos shrinks. One possibility is that Republicans will improve their vote share among Latinos as Latino households experience greater wage and income growth.

The problem, of course, is that recent years have seen extremely modest wage and household income gains. And so Republicans arguably have a strong political interest in policies that will raise wages and incomes.

There are, of course, other factors. Residential integration, immigrant assimilation and intermarriage could all affect the political landscape in unpredictable ways. But if current trends hold, Republicans have a much greater need to expand their coalition than Democrats.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Reihan Salam.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT