As immigration reform grinds its way through the U.S. Senate, the main focus has rightly been on the legislation's policy consequences. But there are important political implications, especially for the GOP, that are worth examining.
Some observers, including Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Buchanan and the Center for Immigration Studies, argue that if Republicans want to win back the White House, they should focus on white voters (who comprised 72% of the electorate in 2012) rather than worrying about Latinos. After all, new Census Bureau estimates are that 100,042,000 whites voted in 2008 but only 98,041,000 did in 2012. Wouldn't it be better to get those two million whites back into the polling booth?
This argument is incomplete. If as many white voters turned out in 2012 as in 2008—and if Mitt Romney received the 59% of them that he got last fall—then his vote total would have increased by 1,180,590. But President Obama's vote total would have increased by 780,390, and Mr. Romney still would have lost the election by 4.6 million votes.
To have prevailed over Mr. Obama in the electoral count, Mr. Romney would have had to carry 62.54% of white voters. That's a tall order, given that Ronald Reagan received 63% of the white vote in his 1984 victory, according to the Congressional Quarterly's analysis of major exit polls. It's unreasonable to expect Republicans to routinely pull numbers that last occurred in a 49-state sweep.
Moreover, a Reagan-like percentage of white voters would yield a much narrower win today. That's because the nonwhite share of the vote had doubled to 28% in 2012 from 13% in 1984, according to national exit polls.
Consider the impact of this growing nonwhite vote. In 1988, George H.W. Bush received 60% of the white vote and won 426 Electoral College votes. In 2004, George W. Bush captured 58% of the white vote but won 286 electoral votes.
It is true that Mr. Romney would not have been elected if he only increased his percentage of Hispanic voters. Had he received 35% of the Latino vote instead of the 27% he did, Mr. Obama would still have won by roughly 4,083,340 votes. The upshot is that if Republicans hope to win the presidency in 2016, they need to do better with both white and Hispanic voters.
How much better? A higher turnout among whites (to 2008 levels) and a small increase in the GOP share of the white vote (say raising it 1% to 60%), along with a somewhat better performance among Latinos (say 35%), and Mr. Romney would have landed in the White House.
The reality is that the nonwhite share of the vote will keep growing. As the American Enterprise Institute's Henry Olsen pointed out in a recent speech, the nonwhite vote as a share of total voters has increased in every presidential election since 1996 by 2% (much of it Hispanic) while the share of the white vote has dropped by 2% each election.
If the GOP leaves nonwhite voters to the Democrats, then its margins in safe congressional districts and red states will dwindle—not overnight, but over years and decades.
For example, the Hispanic population in Georgia's Gwinnett County increased by 153% from 2000 to 2010 while the GOP's presidential vote in the county dropped to 54% in 2012 from 63.7% in 2000. In Henry County, south of Atlanta, the Hispanic population increased by 339% over the same decade. The GOP's presidential vote dropped to 51.2% in 2012 from 66.4% in 2000. Republicans ignore changes like these at their peril.
Immigration reform is a top issue for Latinos as it is being debated in Washington, according to a March Latino Decisions poll. But their other major concerns—the economy and jobs, and education reform—are the same as the rest of America.
Nor will support for immigration reform solve all of the GOP's challenges in appealing to Hispanic voters. Republicans also need compelling messages on jobs, economic growth, social mobility and education. They also must show up. GOP pollster Jan van Lohuizen's focus groups found a major Latino complaint is that they never see Republicans in their communities to make the GOP's case.
Rarely does a political party overcome its challenges by improving just one thing. Republicans must now do two things: turn out more white voters and improve their performance among Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans. The GOP has done both in every winning presidential campaign. The party of Lincoln, to win, must continue to do both.
A version of this article appeared June 27, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: More White Votes Alone Won't Save the GOP and online at WSJ.com.