The stunning results of the election last Tuesday produced the usual finger-pointing and recriminations, which will likely play out until the primaries for the midterm elections in 2014. Some, like Michael Barone, argue that the election took a bad turn when incompetent candidates like Todd Akin in Missouri poisoned the well for Republicans nationwide and played into Democratic rhetoric about the war on women. Others claim, with justification, that Republicans deluded themselves on their standing with the electorate all along, thanks to a distrust of media polling and an echo chamber on the Right. Most of the concern, though, focused on the changing demographics of the electorate, and the lack of Republican traction among non-white voters.
That hardly qualifies as a surprise. The electorate remains overwhelmingly white, but those numbers are shifting downward significantly enough to arguably make Republicans unable to win national elections. In this election, 28 percent of the electorate was non-white, and Barack Obama won an overwhelming advantage among these voters, according to exit polling.
Of chief concern to Republicans after the election was the direction of the Latino vote. The GOP clearly tried to court this demographic during the election. The RNC gave key slots at the convention to three of its rising Latino stars: Ted Cruz (who won his Senate election in Texas), New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Republicans also reminded Latino voters that Obama had promised comprehensive immigration reform during the 2008 campaign, but never even bothered to propose it despite having huge majorities in both chambers of Congress until the midterm elections flipped the House to the GOP.
It's becoming clear that the conservative base's approach won't work.
This GOP argument didn't work. The share of the vote for Latinos rose from 9 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2012, but the momentum went to Obama. In 2008, he won this voter demographic by 36 points: 67 to 31. Last Tuesday, he won it by 44 points: 71 to 27. Among Asian-American voters, another growing demographic, the shift was even more pronounced: Obama added 20 points in the gap over 2008. This explains why Obama won his re-election bid even though Romney won independents, which normally would point to a popular-vote win.
The immediate reaction on policy to these results has been a renewed emphasis on immigration reform. Both sides have talked about resolving this long-standing issue over the last several years. Little has come of it, thanks to insistence on general amnesty from one side's electoral base, and on strict enforcement from the other base. Both parties have tried arguing that the only object standing in the way of success is total political control over Washington, D.C. — and yet, when both parties arguably had it (save for filibuster-proof Senate majorities), neither made any serious moves to pass a reform package, aside from one ill-fated attempt in 2007 that nearly derailed John McCain's presidential bid.
Republicans have expressed considerable interest in moving forward now as a way to address their credibility deficit with Latino voters. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) has already announced new bipartisan talks with New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. That has the GOP base worried that Republicans will cave on amnesty, especially without any enforcement at all. However, even those proposals that did come forward over the last few years had staged rollouts, which required enforcement milestones before any kind of normalization started. The Schumer-Graham talks appear to be following the same pattern, at least according to a National Journal report, which describes a four-part process: Border security, revamping Social Security identification and verification along with employer penalties, starting a temporary worker program, with normalization left to the end.
That may still be anathema to the GOP base, but it's becoming clear that the base's approach won't work. The insistence on demanding nothing but the hard-line approach creates big problems for the nation and the GOP itself. First, the issue of border security has been left in limbo for more than 11 years after 9/11, and more than seven years after the 9/11 Commission rightly demanded better security on both borders, and the broken visa program that offers no follow-up on expired entries. If we continue to punt rather than compromise, we will be left waiting for at least four more years to get any kind of solution.
Plus, continued obstruction means that immigration reform will continue to hang around the GOP's neck like an albatross. Hard-liners argue that a Republican compromise won't convince Latinos to shift to the Republican Party, and they're correct in the short run. However, it's difficult to make the kind of free-market and family values pitches that might make some serious inroads with Latino voters when Republican candidates and activists talk about deportations — self-initiated or otherwise — of family, friends, and others within their communities. That conversation has lasted far too long, and it has caused significant damage.
This election should make it clear that voters don't want the all-or-nothing solutions of either party on any of our pressing issues. The sooner we create a bipartisan solution to immigration reform that verifiably resolves our national-security issues and broken immigration and visa systems, the sooner Republicans can fix that damage — and Americans can regain confidence in our political system's ability to solve large political problems.