If demographics is destiny, then Republicans may have a major political problem on their hands.

Why? Because numbers released by the Census Bureau late last week showed massive growth in the nation’s Hispanic population, a community that Republicans have struggled mightily to reach in recent years.

The numbers are eye-opening. Hispanics now account for more than 16 percent of the total population, making them the largest minority group in the country. More than half of all population growth in the United States over the past decade came from Hispanics. Perhaps most amazing is that nearly a quarter — 23 percent — of all children age 17 or younger are Latino.

That’s a major problem for Republicans, given that in the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — far from the GOP’s most ardent advocate of stricter immigration laws — won just 31 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls.

And if looking back is worrisome for GOP strategists, looking forward is downright frightening.

Of the nine states where the Hispanic population grew by 100 percent or more between 2000 and 2010, McCain won seven of them: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee. That means that what had been reliably red states for decades are slowly — or not so slowly — seeing huge growth among what, for the moment, is a reliably Democratic constituency.

Add to that the fact that the four states with the country’s largest Hispanic population — California, Florida, New York and Texas — will account for 143 electoral votes for the next 10 years. That’s more than half of the electoral votes a candidate needs to be elected president. California and New York already are reliably Democratic, while Texas remains, for now, reliably Republican. Florida has been pivotal in the past three presidential elections and is likely to be again in 2012.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush argued that there is no simple solution to reversing the GOP’s fortunes among Hispanics.

“Republicans need to make a better effort at connecting with Hispanic voters,” he said. “The more connected Hispanics feel to the Republican community, the more likely they are to turn out in support of Republicans on Election Day.”

Bush would know. He experienced one of the party’s rare success stories with Hispanics when he won a majority of their votes in his 2002 reelection bid.

Two years later, President George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to national exit polling, by far the best showing in modern presidential history for a Republican.

(There is considerable dispute among Democrats about those numbers, although no hard evidence has been offered to prove the data wrong; the cross-survey numbers, a compilation of all state-by-state exit polling in 2004, showed Republicans winning 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.)

But those are isolated moments. And even in 2010, when voters elected three Hispanic Republicans to statewide office (Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida), the party won just 38 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide.

Mike Murphy, a senior Republican strategist who worked on former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman’s unsuccessful campaign for California governor in 2010, argues that the reason his side has struggled to make inroads with Hispanics is “mostly driven by the fact that too many Republicans have attempted to use illegal immigration as a wedge issue.”

In the 2008 Republican presidential primary campaign, for example, McCain watched his candidacy falter amid a backlash from the party’s base for his support of comprehensive immigration reform. He ultimately stopped talking about the issue on the campaign trail.

Murphy describes it as a “base-driven strategy that has injected red-hot rhetoric into our party’s message on immigration,” adding: “Primary politics have made the situation even worse.” (Murphy suggests that GOP opposition to some sort of path toward legalization is a “non-starter” for Hispanic voters.)

A free-for-all in the 2012 presidential race could make matters worse as candidates try to out-conservative one another for the coveted primary voter. A race to the ideological right on immigration could further set back the party’s long-term prospects among Hispanics.

Danny Diaz, who helped shepherd Martinez to victory in November, suggested that without a sustained effort among the party’s candidates and top strategists to find policy solutions — or at least a more respectful tone in the immigration debate — the party could be on the brink of writing its own political obituary with Hispanics.

“As is always the case, the release of census numbers is accompanied by hand-wringing, yet what’s required is a commitment to a respectful and substantive dialogue based on sound, forward-looking policies,” Diaz said. “History proves that Hispanic voters can support Republican candidates, but it can’t take place without seriousness and dedication.”