Was Mitt Romney’s conservative turn on immigration responsible for his defeat? During the Republican primary, the former Massachusetts governor used the issue to distinguish himself from other candidates, and bolster his right-wing bona fides. Over the weekend, at a Harvard post-election forum, Romney campaign chief Matt Rhoades acknowledged that was a mistake:
When asked directly whether Mr. Romney regretted tacking to the right on immigration to appeal to conservative primary voters, the room fell silent.
Stuart Stevens, a senior strategist to Mr. Romney, shook his head no. But after pausing for several seconds, Mr. Rhoades said, “I regret that.”
He went on to explain that the campaign, in hindsight, had been too worried about a potential threat from Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who jumped into the race to challenge Mr. Romney as the jobs-and-economy candidate.
The obvious counter factual is that if Romney had kept a more moderate course on immigration — and avoided policies like “self-deportation” — he might have improved his standing with Latino voters, who made a crucial difference in key states like Colorado, Florida and Nevada. And of course, it’s this counter-factual which animates the new Republican effort to find an acceptable medium on immigration reform.
But how important were Latino voters in making the difference between victory and defeat for Romney?
So far, Obama leads the popular vote by 3.6 points, 50.9 percent to 47.3 percent. And overall, according to exit polls, Latinos represented 10 percent of the electorate, or just over 12 and a half million voters. For Romney to make his popular vote gap through Hispanics alone, he’d have to win an additional 4.5 million votes on top of his current share, for a total of 7.9 million votes, or 63 percent of the Latino vote.
Put another way, Romney would have had to improve his vote share among Hispanics by 36 points to find the votes necessary to beat Barack Obama in the popular vote. The Electoral College is a different story. Hispanic votes are unevenly distributed, with most residing in states that aren’t particularly competitive, like Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California. In the states that determined the election — Ohio and Virginia in particular — Latinos are a small share of the electorate. Given Obama’s margin in both states — 3 points and 4 points, respectively — Romney would have had to win the overwhelming majority of Latino voters, upwards of 90 percent, in order to overtake the president.
The simple fact is that Romney did more than just alienate Latinos — he underperformed among African Americans, Asian Americans, working class voters, women, and young people. If Republicans want to win the White House — and another shot at governing the country — they’ll have to do a whole lot more than just support immigration reform.