TAMPA – Tune in to the Republican National Convention tonight and you’ll see the face of the GOP is Hispanic.
Five of nine scheduled speakers are Hispanic, including Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz, then Wednesday, Gov. Luis Fortuño of Puerto Rico and Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico are on, and Thursday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio introduces Mitt Romney.
The problem for Republicans is the diversity at the Tampa Bay Times Forum podium this week belies political reality.
Romney is far behind President Barack Obama among Hispanic voters, and his campaign so far has shown little interest in aggressively courting that vote. Party leaders fret that unless they reverse current trends, the long-term implications are dire as white voters represent a shrinking share of the electorate.
“If you’re going backwards with a growing population, you’re in trouble. I fear, long term, the Republican Party will end up being a regional party,” said former state Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami. “After this election, you’re skating on some thin ice.”
Republican strategist Karl Rove echoed that sentiment Monday at a POLITICO/Tampa Bay Times breakfast forum. “I’m concerned about the Hispanic vote long term,” he said. “The Republican Party can’t do with a dynamic, growing part of the electorate what it’s done with African-Americans or we might find ourselves at a point where we get 5 percent and we consider ourselves fortunate, where we’re thrilled if we get 10 percent, and we’re ecstatic if we get 13 or 14 percent.”
The implications are high for November, but far higher down the road.
Hispanics are the country’s fastest-growing demographic. In 1990, there were 22 million in the United States. Today, there are 50.5 million, and by 2030 there will be an estimated 78 million, representing 22 percent of the overall population.
The latest national poll, conducted by NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo, showed Obama with a 63 percent to 28 percent lead over Romney with Hispanic voters. In Florida, the latest Quinnipiac poll shows Obama winning by 30 percentage points, double the margin of Hispanic voters he won four years ago.
As much as party leaders stress the need to appeal to Hispanic voters, the base doesn’t always fall in line. It has pushed candidates such as Romney into hard-line positions on issues like immigration that can antagonize Latinos with harsh rhetoric.
“The Republican primary I think was one where the tone on immigration sent a pretty negative signal to immigrant groups and people related to immigrants,” said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “All Hispanic voters are looking for is some sense of respect and understanding of their aspirations.”
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, is poised to adopt a platform that embraces many of the positions Romney took in the primary to take down rivals such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry by casting him as soft on illegal immigration. Among the planks: increase border fencing, oppose in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants and promote strict immigration laws like those in Arizona.
“George W. Bush showed that a Republican who reaches out and asks for Hispanic support and assiduously courts it can do very well. George W. Bush got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally according to exit polls in 2004,” noted Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “It’s entirely possible for Republican, conservative candidates to do very well in the Hispanic community. We can count. We did not flunk arithmetic, and we will do better in the future.”