As a matter of arithmetic, Trende is right: Hispanics were only about 9 or 10 percent of the electorate in 2012, and Obama won the national popular vote by 3.9 points. For the GOP to gain 3.9 points out of 9 percent of the electorate, they’d need to improve by a net-43 points with Hispanics, all but eliminating Obama’s 44 point margin of victory. That isn’t going to happen in a competitive election. The importance of Hispanics is further reduced by the Electoral College, since they are disproportionately concentrated in solid red or blue states: Hispanics represent more than 5 percent of the electorate in only three of the twelve most competitive states.
Massive GOP gains among Hispanics just couldn’t have elected Romney. Only Florida would have flipped. And since Hispanics are just a fraction of the electorate in many of the most pivotal states—like New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—it’s conceivable that the next GOP victory might not involve big gains among Hispanics. That’s why I’ve argued here, here, here, and here that the focus on immigration reform and Hispanics is misplaced. And that’s why immigration reform is more important as a test of the GOP’s willingness to rebrand than as a means to single-handedly secure the White House.
But the GOP will have to compensate with gains elsewhere if it forfeits marginal but meaningful opportunities among Hispanics. Demographic changes are turning the Bush coalition—which combined white conservatives with a few targeted inroads among sympathetic groups—into a coffin. Every four years, the non-white share of eligible voters increases by 2 points, requiring Republicans to do a little better to compensate for demographic change. Plugging the 2004 results into 2016 demographics, for instance, would yield a Democratic victory. And to counter demographic changes by 2016, the GOP will need broader appeal than it’s had since 1984—a high burden. And that burden becomes even greater, even if only marginally, without inroads among Hispanics.
But Trende’s case is so appealing to conservatives because it implies that Republicans don’t need to make any compromises whatsoever to make additional gains among white voters.