Mitt Romney has found himself in the middle of the kind of controversy that is supposed to abate after a campaign. On a call with donors Wednesday, he blamed his loss on "gifts" -- in the form of official policies -- that President Obama bestowed on important voter blocs.
Most everybody agrees that Obama's decision to exempt young illegal immigrants from deportation helped him win a massive victory among Latinos. But Romney's inartful comment about "gifts" belies a more serious long-term problem for the GOP in appealing to Latinos.
The problem: Whether you call them "gifts" or "government services," they are very popular with Latinos. And that doesn't jibe with the core principles of the Republican Party.
Latinos are very much in line with the Democratic Party when it comes to how much government should do, as the chart below shows:
In addition, a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that while 55 percent of Americans generally prefer a "smaller federal government with fewer services," 67 percent of Latinos favor a "larger federal government with more services" -- about the same number as Democrats.
This is undoubtedly part of what worked for the Obama campaign last Tuesday. It may have seemed a little foolhardy during the campaign for Obama to prosecute the case for a more active government when most Americans want small government, but that message appealed big time to Latinos and was apparently acceptable to enough independents in the middle.
We've seen several big name Republicans in recent days cautioning that the party shouldn't expect all of its problems with Latinos to disappear the moment immigration reform is passed.
"Don’t think that’s the panacea, and that every Hispanic is going to switch with immigration reform,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Wednesday at the Washington Ideas Forum. “We still have a lot of work to do."
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) agreed in his appearance on the "Daily Show" earlier this week, alluding to the role-of-government debate.
"I think the fact is Republicans have done a pathetic job of communicating what conservativism does to empower people and how it helps people to move from one rung of the ladder to the next," Huckabee said.
Huckabee is essentially blaming the fact that Latinos prefer bigger government on the GOP's lack of a coherent message.
There is actually some evidence of progress on that front, however, as the number of Latinos who said the "government is doing too much" doubled between 2008 and 2012, from 18 percent to 36 percent.
But Republicans are still very much fighting a losing battle. And given that Latinos are overwhelmingly among the poorest Americans, government services will continue to have appeal.
This is a big reason why we've seen such a swift GOP backlash against Romney for his comments. The "47 percent" and "gifts" rhetoric can be hugely harmful to this effort, and Republicans want to put it behind them in a hurry.
The GOP may correct its course on immigration reform in the coming weeks and months; convincing Latinos to buy into its small-government philosophy will take considerably more time.