A few months ago I was in San Francisco where, on a chilly Sunday morning, I met a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s election team. We chatted over coffee about the campaign, which he said was going well (this was before the leaking of Mr Romney’s infamous “47 per cent” video). Momentum was growing, he said, and the Republican nominee was confident of success.

Then I asked the adviser about Latino voters. Two weeks before, Barack Obama had signed an executive order blocking deportations of undocumented young immigrants. It was a bold move: an issue which had been dormant among prospective Latino voters was suddenly live again. New polls showed them favouring the US president over Mr Romney by a large margin.

This was partly because of Mr Romney’s stance during the Republican primary, when he said undocumented workers should be encouraged to “self-deport”. At the time, aspiring Republican candidates were trying to outdo each other when it came to their toughness on immigration policy. Herman Cain, the pizza-chain magnate who briefly led the primary race, even proposed building an electric fence along the US border with Mexico to deter – and presumably kill – anyone hell-bent on entering the country.

While popular with the conservative base of his party, which would ultimately choose him as its nominee, Mr Romney’s “self-deport” phrase outraged Latinos. Throw in Mr Obama’s executive order and I wondered if the adviser agreed Mr Romney seemed to have a problem with the fastest-growing demographic in the US. “Well,” the adviser said, choosing his words carefully, “you may be right. But historically, Latinos don’t turn out to vote.”

Fast forward to November 6 and a record Latino turnout proved decisive in many of the swing states retained by Mr Obama. From Florida, where Americans of Mexican, Salvadorean and Guatemalan origin now rival the number of right-leaning Cuban-Americans, to Virginia, Colorado and Nevada, the Latino vote was enough to give Mr Obama the victory.

I have not been able to reach the Romney adviser since the election to get his response (my guess is he is on holiday – presumably not to a Spanish-speaking country). Yet, despite his candidate’s defeat, he was right about one aspect of turnout.

Although the number of Latinos voting in US presidential elections has soared over the past decade, voter participation relative to the size of the Latino population has been low. When George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, 7.6m Latinos voted; in 2008, when Mr Obama defeated John McCain, that number grew close to 10m. It leapt again with Mr Obama’s re-election to an estimated 12m, equivalent to about 10 per cent of all votes cast.

But 12m votes is only equivalent to about 50 per cent of the eligible Latino population, according to the Pew Hispanic Centre. That is roughly the same rate as the last two elections but it is lower than the participation of other voters: in 2008, 65 per cent of eligible blacks voted, compared with 66 per cent of whites.

Latino advocacy groups recognise that participation is low, which is why they tried to register voters in the run-up to the election. One group, the National Council of La Raza, registered 55,000 new Latino voters in Florida alone. With 74,000 votes separating the two candidates, newly registered Latino voters helped Mr Obama win the state.

California leaning

Nationally, the Latino population is forecast to grow further over the next three decades. A clue to how much lies in California, where an older, more established Latino community has kept the state Democratic in presidential elections since 1992. About 23 per cent of Californians voting in the presidential election were of Latino origin, according to exit polls – more than double the national average.

If, as expected, America’s population begins to resemble California’s, Republicans pursuing anti-immigrant rhetoric will have a big problem. So what should the party do? The solution is simple. Support reform of the immigration system and stop talking about electric fences and self-deportation, because Latinos are not going anywhere and you will not win the White House without them.

I was planning to mention this to the Romney adviser I had coffee with that day. After what happened on November 6, however, I suspect he already knows.


Get alerts on Virginia when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article