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Operation Gringo: Can the Republicans Sacrifice the Hispanic Vote and Win the White House?

Since the Republicans, to say the least, do not seem particularly inclined to curry favor with Hispanic voters by playing nice on Sonia Sotomayor, it’s worth engaging in the following thought experiment: Can the Republicans win back the White House in 2012 or 2016 while losing further ground among Latinos? And if so, what is their most plausible path to victory?

I think the answer to the first question is ‘yes’ — although it depends, of course, on exactly how much more ground they lose, as well as how much ground they could hope to gain among white voters. If they chose to pursue this strategy, the Republicans would probably elect to make immigration a linchpin issue of their campaign, perhaps coupled with the adoption of some paleoconservative, protectionist rhetoric on issues like NAFTA. While this strategy would be at best a temporary fix — it would become less effective each passing year as the country continues to grow more diverse — it might have some strategic benefits in the next two elections, particularly if the economy remains poor or there is some sort of double-dip recession.

In 2008, the Latino vote made the difference in the outcome of three states: New Mexico, where about 2 in 5 voters identify as Hispanic, as well as — somewhat surprisingly — Indiana and North Carolina — where Obama lost nonhispanic voters by a tiny margin and was put over the top by Hispanic votes. It probably also made the difference, believe it or not, in the 2nd Congressional District of Nebraska — Omaha actually has a decent-sized Hispanic minority — although the exit polls aren’t detailed enough to let us know for sure.

That the Hispanic vote helped Obama to win electoral votes in such “gringo” territories as Nebraska and Indiana is a reminder that there are Hispanics everywhere now; the presence of a surprisingly large and extremely Democratic-leaning Hispanic vote in New Jersey, for example, is one reason why Republicans are no longer competitive there. Moreover, the growth rate of the Hispanic population tends to be fastest in such nontraditional areas as the South and even the Prairie states. According to the Census Bureau, the state where the age 18+ Hispanic population grew the fastest between 2007 and 2008 was South Carolina (+6.6%), followed by a three-way tie between North Carolina, North Dakota and South Dakota (each +6.5%).

Still, the most immediate and obvious downside to the Republicans would be in the Southwest. They would sacrifice New Mexico and Nevada, where Obama already won by 15- and 12-point margins respectively, perhaps for the foreseeable future. Although Colorado is not quite in the same category, the Republicans are already suffering from the migration of well-educated (and largely white) coastal liberal voters into the state; to deliberately sacrifice its Hispanic vote, which represented 13 percent of its electorate in 2008, would render the state all but unwinnable for them. So let’s assume that any manifestation of Operation Gringo cannot rely on votes from Nevada, New Mexico, or Colorado.

Let’s now work backward to figure out which states the Republicans can win. The states that John McCain won in 2008 — counting 4 of Nebraska’s 5 electoral votes — were worth 173 electoral votes last year, but will be worth 178 in 2012, according to a recent estimate from Election Data Services. So starting with that 178-EV baseline, let’s begin adding states back into the Republican column in reverse order of difficulty. Note that all electoral vote totals listed in the balance of this article reflect 2012 projections rather than 2008 figures.

Indiana (+11 electoral votes; 189 total). As we mentioned earlier, Indiana’s small but heavily Demoratic-leaning Hispanic population actually made the difference in the state last November, giving Obama his 1-point victory. Nevertheless, it’s a very white state, and Republicans are unlikely to be taken by surprise in Indiana as they were last time around.

Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District (+1 Electoral Vote; 190 total). This is not necessarily a gimme. As of 2007, 11 percent of Omaha’s population was estimated to be Latino, and another 13 percent African-American. Still, if Operation Gringo can’t work in Omaha, it probably can’t work anywhere.

North Carolina (+15 electoral votes; 205 total). North Carolina is probably going to be a bit more difficult for the Republicans to win back than Indiana. Operation Gringo or no, they are unlikely to gain any ground with the state’s substantial black population, and as we described earlier its Hispanic population is growing rapidly and may represent 5 or 6 percent of its electorate by 2012. Still, it’s one of their easier targets, particuarly if the Republicans nominate a Southerner.

Ohio (+19 electoral votes; 224 total). Ohio is ground zero for the Operation Gringo strategy. Never an especially terrific state for Obama, Republicans could gain ground there if they try and trump Obama on issues like NAFTA.

Iowa (+6 electoral votes; 230 total) and New Hampshire (+4 electoral votes; 234 total). One nice advantage the Republican nominee will have in 2012 is that he (or she) will have spent many months barnstorming through Iowa and New Hampshire, giving them a head start on endearing themselves to that state’s voters. Coupled with the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire are as white as any states in the country, they’re two of the more plausible targets.

Virginia (+13 electoral votes; 247 total). Don’t take this for granted; 30 percent of Virginia’s electorate was nonwhite in 2008 (including 5 percent Hispanic) and among the white population, an increasing number are wealthy liberals whose ideological orientation is more Mason than Dixon. Moreover, it is a well-educated and fairly sophisticated state that might not take kindly to a campaign based on identity politics. But the Republicans will have to find some way to win it by a couple of points.

Florida (+28 electoral votes; 275 total). I know what you’re going to say — doesn’t Florida have a substantial Latino population? It does, but much of that population is Cuban, a group with whom Republicans have long done reasonably well. Obama won only 57 percent of Florida’s Hispanic votes in 2008, his smallest margin among any of the dozen or so states in which exit polls tracked this number.

If the Republicans did manage to win Florida, along with the other Obama states mentioned above, they would have a winning electoral map that looks like the following:

Note that New Hampshire is actually redundant here — the Republicans could lose it and still win 271-267. They could also win New Hampshire but lose Iowa, which would give them a 269-269 tie, give or take a vote or two depending on how the electoral reallocation shakes out following the Census.

But we’ve made a big assumption here — that Republicans can somehow cleave up the Cuban and non-Cuban Hispanics, and hold on to Florida and its 28 electoral votes. What if they can’t? Let’s bump them back down to 247 electoral votes and start finding some more states for them.

Pennsylvania (+20 electoral votes; 267 total). We saw how well the Republicans’ all-out efforts to win Pennsylvania worked for them in 2008, and indeed they haven’t won the state since 1988. Still, they could hope that the protectionist, anti-free trade components of Operation Gringo would play well enough among union workers to tip the balance in their favor, particularly if they’ve won back the state’s governorship in 2010 and control of its political machine. Unfortunately, however — unless they catch a couple breaks with the Census — Pennsylvania alone would not be enough to get the Republicans to 270.

Minnesota (+10 electoral votes; 277 total). It’s hard to know how to read Minnesota. The Republicans managed to hold Obama to “only” a 10-point victory there, less than his 14-point win in neighboring Wisconsin, which has traditionally been more of a swing state. Then again, they spent an awful lot of resources there — including holding their convention in St. Paul — to come even that close. But Minnesota is, of course, a very white state, and they would probably have to find some way to win it — nobody said the Florida-less version of Operation Gringo was going to be easy.

If they pulled all of this off, it would give the Republicans a winning electoral map that looks as follows:

There is, however, another wrench in the works: Arizona, which we have been taking for granted until now. Arizona was not terribly competitive in 2008, but there is a good reason for that: it was John McCain’s home state. Unless they pull a fast one on us and nominate John Kyl or Jeff Flake in 2012, the Republicans will not have that advantage next time around. The “home state advantage” is typically worth about 7 points, although it can vary from candidate to candidate and state to state. Considering how well Obama performed in some of Arizona’s neighbors, it would probably have been competitive had McCain been from, say, Wyoming instead. With its large Hispanic population, it would certainly become competitive in 2012 if the Republicans chose to pursue an Operation Gringo strategy.

So let’s assume that the Republicans lose Arizona, which projects to have 11 electoral votes by 2012. That knocks them back to 266 electoral votes. Their next best option is probably…

Wisconsin (+10 electoral votes; 276 total). This is a tall order. Obama won the state by 14 points, it would be besieged by volunteers from neighboring Illinois, and the state seems to have shaken off its Tommy Thompson experimental phase and returned to its more progressive roots. Nevertheless, if they could win Wisconsin, the Republicans could win the White House with this very strange-looking electoral map:

There is one last state that the Republicans might have a few concerns about: Texas. Twenty percent of its electorate was Hispanic in 2008; another 13 percent was black; and another 4 percent was Asian or Other. If Obama can win 98 percent of Texas’ black vote, as he did in 2008, while improving to 75 percent of its Hispanic and “other” vote, that would get him to 47 percent of its vote based on its 2008 electoral demographics. But the demographics of Texas are changing in ways that are favorable to the Democrats, and so 50 percent-plus might be within his grasp.

If the Republicans were to lose Texas in addition to Arizona — and let me disclaim, I don’t think this is likely in 2012 but it might be relevant in 2016 and certainly 2020 — then naturally they are in a whole heap of trouble. Texas will be up to 37 electoral votes in 2012 according to EDS projections (and may well hit 38); if we subtract the 37 electoral votes from the Republican column they are back down to 239. They would then need to win…

Michigan (+16 electoral votes; 255 total). We don’t know what exactly what Michigan is going to look like four years hence in the wake of the disaster that has befallen the auto industry. What we do know is that Obama won it by 16 points and that, because the Republicans abandoned the state early on, they will be disadvantaged in 2012 by lacking things like up-to-date voter lists. Nevertheless, it’s the best of a series of bad alternatives.

Maine (+4 electoral votes; 259 total). You got a better idea? Maine is certainly very white and, while not really a swing state in recent Presidential elections, has some history of behaving idiosyncratically: for instance, electing two Republican women to the Senate in spite of having went for Obama by 17 points. The Republicans could presumably also consider something like a Huckabee-Snowe ticket to improve their chances in Maine and New Hampshire.

But here is where things get really difficult. The next-closest available state based on 2008 results — excluding those like Colorado that we eliminated earlier — is New Jersey, which Obama won by 15.5 points. But New Jersey itself has a somewhat large Hispanic population — about 15 percent of its adult population is Latino, and while its Hispanic turnout somewhat lagged in 2008, it would surely be motivated to register and vote by Operation Gringo. After New Jersey, the next-closest state in 2008 was Oregon, which was highly competitive as recently as 2004, but unfortunately it does not give the Republicans a sufficient number of electoral votes. That would seem to leave only…

Washington (+11 electoral votes; 270 total). Good luck. Washington hasn’t voted Republican since 1984. Its electorate is not as white as you’d think — 7 percent Hispanic in 2008 and another 7 percent Asian/other. Moreover, it would get the Republicans only to 270 electoral votes, exactly the number they’d need for victory, so if there are any fluctuations at all from the projected electoral vote totals (or they lost one of Maine’s two congressional districts), it might only produce a tie or even a narrow loss. But beggars can’t be choosers; we would at least have this very interesting map to look at:

This is the sort of electoral future the GOP might have to contemplate if they start losing the Hispanic vote by margins of 3:1, 4:1 or more. Giving up on New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado is a feasible, and perhaps even wise, strategy. But if they don’t thread the needle just perfectly, and they make it difficult for themselves to win back Florida, while putting Arizona and perhaps even Texas increasingly into play, their task will become nearly impossible.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.