WASHINGTON — This presidential race is not over.
Mitt Romney remains close in most swing states, though durable polling deficits in Ohio and Virginia are enough to trouble even the sleep of the just. President Obama’s job approval remains in the re-election danger zone, the economy stubbornly refuses to rally and the Middle East has chosen an inconvenient time (from the president’s perspective) to combust. A sharpened Romney message, a serious Obama stumble, a decisive debate outcome could turn the conventional wisdom — so uniform, so fragile — overnight.
But for Republicans pondering trends beyond the next election, the most depressing news comes from New Mexico. It is a state with the most popular Republican governor in America, also the first and only Latina governor in America. Susana Martinez recently recorded a 69 percent approval rating. Yet polls show Romney behind Obama in New Mexico by five to 14 points. The Romney campaign has essentially conceded the Land of Enchantment, pulling its communications director and Hispanic outreach coordinator to work elsewhere.
New Mexico has the largest proportion of Hispanic voters in the country — over 40 percent — as well as the nation’s highest percentage below the poverty line. Yet President George W. Bush won New Mexico (barely) in 2004 — one of two states that flipped from the Democratic to the Republican column. Now Romney is not close to competing.
Bush’s Hispanic outreach — probably the largest single explanation for his 2004 re-election victory — consisted of more than Spanish as an enthusiastic, ungrammatical second language. He opposed “English only” legislation and spiteful benefit cuts for the children of undocumented workers. He supported comprehensive immigration reform that included a difficult but feasible path to citizenship. These symbols of respect earned Bush a hearing on economic, social and educational policy, where Latino and Republican priorities tend to coincide.
Romney chose a different path during the primaries. In an attempt to allay conservative suspicions of his health care record, Romney turned sharply rightward on immigration. He praised Arizona’s restrictive immigration law as a model for the country and criticized Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s support for in-state college tuition benefits for the children of undocumented workers. If Romney loses a tight election — not a foregone conclusion — his support for “self-deportation” and ill-advised promise to veto the DREAM Act may prove major contributing factors. Whatever the election’s outcome, these stands have complicated his electoral task in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and Florida.
In this case, the workings of political karma are particularly cruel. Given persistent double-digit unemployment among Hispanics, and Obama’s cynical failure to push for immigration reform when he enjoyed House and Senate Democratic majorities, Republicans should have an opening with Latino voters. Even now, the enthusiasm of Hispanic voters for Obama is significantly lower than four years ago, which could help Romney’s prospects.
But it is not a long-term political strategy for Republicans to count on the low turnout of America’s fastest-growing ethnic group. The GOP is on the losing side of a demographic revolution. The median age of Hispanics in America is 27.6. For non-Hispanic whites, it is 42.3. About one in four American students entering kindergarten comes from a Latino background. At the national level, it will eventually not be possible to run up high-enough percentages among white voters to counterbalance poor support among minorities.
What can Romney do? Even at this late date, marginal progress may be possible. One recent battleground poll found some unexpected openness to Romney among Hispanic men — which could be an outlier or an opportunity. At the Univision forum last week, Romney sought to soften his edge on immigration policy, emphasizing his support for a temporary workers program and permanent status for those who serve in the military or earn advanced degrees. Some specific initiatives addressing Latino concerns might help. In 2011, for example, 21 percent of Hispanics had a college degree of some sort, compared to 44 percent of whites. It would not be pandering to announce a policy designed to boost Hispanic college attendance and completion. There is nothing dirty or disreputable in addressing a genuine national issue while engaging in some political outreach.
As political tasks go, this one isn’t particularly hard — pitching a message of economic growth, social mobility and social conservatism to the Latino community. But it requires a recognition. The Republican embrace of one portion of the conservative movement — immigration opponents — will eventually deprive every other element of conservatism (pro-defense, pro-life, pro-business) of national influence.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.