The battle for the future of the Republican Party has split warring factions of conservative pundits into two camps: those who clamor for expanding the base to increase diversity by appealing to Latino voters, and those who don't. It's Rush Limbaugh versus Sean Hannity, Fox News against Fox News.
But while the country's shifting demographics can partly explain what happened on Election Day, conservative pundits are ignoring a few keys facts: President Obama was reelected because voters trusted him on economic issues, and Latinos are more liberal in their views than conservative media give them credit for.
The wide consensus in the first camp is that Mitt Romney's electoral loss will be the first of many unless the movement starts to appeal to the growing Latino and nonwhite American population. This admission has resulted in some stunning reversals. Staunch anti-immigrant voices, who for years have frothed at the mouth to impeach President Obama over his immigration policies, are now agreeing with Obama's position: Congress should pursue legislation designed to put undocumented immigrants on "a path to citizenship." In conservative media circles, this is known as "amnesty."
On his Thursday radio show, Hannity admitted as much. After noting how lopsided the Latino vote turned out to be -- 71 percent of Hispanics voted for Obama as opposed to 27 who favored Romney -- Hannity repudiated what has characterized the conservative position on immigration, saying:
HANNITY: We've got to get rid of the immigration issue altogether. It's simple for me to fix it. I think you control the border first. You create a pathway for those people that are here. You don't say you've gotta go home. And that is a position that I've evolved on.
On Geraldo Rivera's radio show, after saying Republicans shouldn't make overtures to African-American voters, O'Reilly claimed:
O'REILLY: Hispanic American voters, generally speaking, are conservative socially. They don't believe in gay marriage. They're not libertines. They're not people looking for a handout. They're not that -- generally speaking. They're traditional, family oriented people who are faith-based most of them. And they're Catholics. That's where the Republican Party has to start.
In his Washington Post column, Krauthammer argued that the "principal reason" Latinos vote Democratic "is the issue of illegal immigrants" and added: "For the party in general, however, the problem is hardly structural. It requires but a single policy change: Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty. Use the word. Shock and awe -- full legal normalization (just short of citizenship) in return for full border enforcement."
Across the aisle, voices such as Limbaugh's disagreed. Limbaugh rejected the idea that Romney lost primarily because of demographics and stressed that the GOP should not give into the media and abandon its "ideologically principled positions."
Writing at National Review Online, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, dismissed the calls from the "open-borders Right" and stated that the GOP ought to reach out to those Latinos "who are more assimilated, better educated, and middle class." Referring to Bush's share of the Latino vote in 2004, Krikorian added: "But even if the fairy-tale number of 44 percent of the Hispanic vote were possible, it still wouldn't make sense to keep increasing the Democratic share of the electorate through ongoing mass immigration."
In fact, both camps are missing the forest. As Slate's Matt Yglesias explained, "The GOP doesn't have a problem with Latino voters per se. Rather, it has a problem with a broad spectrum of voters who simply don't feel that it's speaking to their economic concerns. The GOP has an economic agenda tilted strongly to the benefit of elites, and it has preserved support for that agenda -- even though it disserves the majority of GOP voters -- with implicit racial politics."
Indeed, as Democratic pollster Joel Benenson wrote in the New York Times, "The president's victory was a triumph of vision, not of demographics." He continued:
Two key data points illustrate why Americans were always far more open to President Obama's message and accomplishments than commentators assumed. By a three to one margin (74 percent to 23 percent), voters said that what the country faced since 2008 was an "extraordinary crisis more severe than we've seen in decades" as opposed to "a typical recession that the country has every several years." At the same time, a clear majority, 57 percent, believed that the problems we faced after the crisis were "too severe for anyone to fix in a single term," while only 4 in 10 voters believed another president would have been able to do more than Mr. Obama to get the economy moving in the past four years.
The president's forward-looking approach resonated strongly with American voters, who by a margin of 77 percent to 17 percent said that which candidate would make their life better four years from now was more important to their vote than whether they were better off four years ago. And voters simply didn't believe that Mr. Romney was on their side.
Exit polls the night of the election also showed that 60 percent of voters thought the economy was the most important issue of the election. Moreover, CNN reported, voters in the swing states of Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia blamed George W. Bush, not Obama, for the economic situation.
And contrary to the conventional wisdom on the right that Latinos are staunch social conservatives, clear majorities favor marriage equality, progressive economic policies, and health care reform.
From an October 22 Pew Hispanic Center survey:
For the first time since the Pew Hispanic Center began asking the question in its National Survey of Latinos, more Hispanics favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally (52%) than oppose same-sex marriage (34%).
About seven-in-ten Hispanics who are religiously unaffiliated also favor legal marriage for gays and lesbians (71%).
Other polls confirm these results.
A Latino Decisions poll conducted on the eve of the election also found:
- 42% of Latino voters support a "combination of higher taxes and spending cuts" to reduce the deficit compared to 12% who support "only spending cuts."
- 61% of Latino voters believe that the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare should stand as law compared to 25% who believe it should be repealed.
- 66% of Latino voters believe that the federal government should ensure that all people have access to health insurance compared to 25% who think that people should provide their own health insurance.
A Fox News Latino poll before the election found it misleading to conclude that social issues factor decisively into Latinos' voting decisions:
[S]ocial topics such gay marriage and abortion was ranked fourth among the issues that the respondents said would be most important in their decision on whom to select for president. Social issues was cited as most important by 8 percent of the respondents, coming behind education, which was picked by 11 percent of respondents, healthcare, selected by 14 percent, and at the top was the economy and jobs, cited by a far larger 48 percent.
What's more, when asked which presidential candidate would best encourage the values they believe in, 62 percent chose President Obama - slightly more than twice the percentage (30) who chose his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
That indicates that a Republican push to appeal to Latino voters by casting themselves as the party that best reflects their values -- family and faith and traditional social views -- has not swayed them in any significant way.