Analysis: The GOP's 'Hispanic Problem' May Be Bigger Than It Appears

PHOTO:  Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Florida has Rubio.Jae C. Hong/AP Photo
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Florida has Rubio.

The Republican Party's "Hispanic problem" is common knowledge to anyone who has looked at the presidential election results. It's become a crucial part of the 2012 narrative. But despite all the ink, airtime and pixels given to the topic since Election Day, you can't fully appreciate the depths of the problem until you match those results up against Hispanic population growth patterns.

The impact of the GOP's Hispanic gap could be bigger than many realize.

The size of the Republicans' challenge becomes clear when the growth in the nation's Hispanic population through Patchwork Nation's 12 county types. The Hispanic population had been growing across the board, but the increases in some county types in particular – the Immigration Nation counties, Monied Burbs and Boom Towns – look to have far-reaching impacts.

The Only Places Obama Did Better

It was always going to be difficult for President Obama to replicate what he did in 2008. In that election he benefited from voters' fatigue with George W. Bush, their fears about the economy and their excitement over a historic election that featured the first African-American presidential nominee in a major party.

That set of circumstances could not be repeated in 2012 and, accordingly, Mr. Obama's percentages dropped. He won by about 4 percentage points nationally in 2012. He won by 7 percentage points in 2008. And across Patchwork Nation his margin of victory was the same or less in all of the 12 types except one – Immigration Nation.

In those Hispanic-heavy communities Mr. Obama actually improved his margin – albeit slightly. He won those counties 51 percent to 47 percent in 2012. He won them 51-48 percent in 2008. (You can see those numbers on WNYC's Patchwork Nation results map.)

What happened? Well those heavily Hispanic places got more Hispanic in the last few years. In 2006, those counties were, on average 36 percent Hispanic. By 2010 they were 46% Hispanic. And that massive growth in the Hispanic vote, plus Mr. Obama's increased margin among Hispanics was enough to grow his victory margin in those places.

To be clear, 51-47 percent is not a blow out. And these counties will be close for the foreseeable future because of the inherent tensions that exist them, as we have notedearlier on Still, the fact that Mr. Obama grew his margin in these places in a year where many of the odds were stacked against him – a weak economy, his position as an incumbent running in a change environment – is a testament to the significance of the support he got from Hispanics.

But the impact of that support looks to have much deeper meanings elsewhere.

The Great Hispanic Diaspora

To understand how the country is changing look below at the maps showing the immigrant population in the United States in 1980 and 2008.

Not all immigrants are Hispanics of course, but over the past few decades Hispanics have made up a large chunk of the United States' immigration population. And the spread of the immigrant population has followed a similar spread of Hispanics into different regions around the country – and into different community types in Patchwork Nation.

All the community types in Patchwork Nation have grown more Hispanic in recent years, with some of the biggest, most electorally significant changes coming in the wealthy Monied Burbs and the exurban Boom Towns.

As we noted a few weeks ago President Obama performed especially well on Election Day in the Monied Burbs, where he won by seven percentage points, and in the Boom Towns. Mr. Obama lost the Boom Towns by nine points, but still did far better than Sen. John Kerry did in 2004, when the Massachusetts senator lost them by 17 points.

The numbers in the above chart may help explain what drove Mr. Obama's improvements over Mr. Kerry in those places. The Hispanic population in the Monied Burbs grew by some 4 percentage points in between 2006 and 2010. In the Boom Towns the growth was larger, 6 percent. (We have written in more in-depth reporting of how many Hispanics moved to Boom Town counties as they were growing to work the construction jobs there.)

The numbers in the chart would also help explain Mr. Obama's smaller improvement vis-a-vis Mr. Kerry in the Service Worker Center counties. Mr. Obama lost those places by 10 points in 2012, only slightly better than Mr. Kerry's 12-point loss in them in 2004. But the Hispanic population in the Service Worker Centers has climbed by only 1 percentage point since 2006.

The growth of Hispanics in the Burbs and Boom Towns should be especially troubling to the GOP because of where those counties hold big segments of the electorate – swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Colorado. The growth in those places not only means they have more Hispanics, but that the non-Hispanic population in them is growing better acquainted with their new neighbors. Hispanics are becoming more common in those places, more a "normal" part of the population.

None of this is an argument that the nation's shifting ethnic landscape offers the only explanation of the vote changes we have seen in the past few elections. It may not even offer the best one. We have noted in several posts recently how the Republican Party's strong embrace of issues designed to win over social conservatives could be driving some of the GOP's problems in more moderate communities.

But comparing the footprint of the nation's growing Hispanic population with the most recent election results suggests the Republican Party's problem with Hispanic voters is not only big, it is growing and becoming a problem in areas that are crucial to winning statewide and national elections.