ATLANTA (AP) — It's a fairly safe bet, based on polls and history, that non-Hispanic white voters will choose Republican Mitt Romney by a wide margin in Tuesday's presidential election. And that's a problem for the GOP.
Steep racial divisions this year that put overwhelming numbers of minority voters in President Barack Obama's camp mean the Republican Party must attract more nonwhite voters in coming years, or watch Democrats walk away with a sustained Electoral College majority. To understand the GOP quandary, consider the possibility of Texas and Florida — nearly a quarter of all Electoral College votes between them — becoming reliably Democratic.
Beyond the immediate question of whether Romney can mitigate this advantage for Obama in swing states is a larger one: What can Republicans do over time to build minority support? Can they successfully pull that off without sacrificing white votes?
The dilemma is not new, and GOP leaders are well aware of it.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham quipped this summer the GOP can't win with "angry white guys" alone, even if Romney manages to crack 60 percent among whites. According to the 2008 exit poll, white voters made up about 9 out of 10 voters for Republican John McCain. About 6 in 10 Obama supporters were white.
"The GOP cannot expect to win the presidency in the future by simply relying on running up big numbers with white voters," said Mark McKinnon, once a top George W. Bush campaign adviser.
Prominent minority Republicans say the conversation within their party must intensify and it must be personal.
Juan Hernandez, a Republican activist who recruits and raises money for GOP candidates in Texas, said that while Romney's primary rhetoric on immigration — he has called for "self-deportation" — is a liability, Obama's failure to push an overhaul of immigration law creates an opening for future Republican candidates.
"If another candidate comes along and truly opens his or her door to us, listens to us, fights for our family members who are undocumented, then we will embrace that person," Hernandez said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American and a rising GOP star, said his party must convince Hispanics that the Republican Party welcomes immigrants. He believes that "limited government and free enterprise" can be marketed to everyone. Both men, however, acknowledged near-visceral barriers.
"Immigration may not be the No. 1 issue in the Hispanic community, but it is a gateway issue," Rubio said. "The way you talk about it matters."
According to nationwide exit polls, Hispanics were 2 percent of the electorate in 1992 and 9 percent in 2008. They could top 10 percent of the electorate this year.
Former President George W. Bush, a Texan who worked to engage the Hispanic community, set the high mark for Republicans, winning 44 percent of Hispanics in 2004, according to the national exit poll. Independent polls suggest that Romney lags well behind that level of support.
Black voters typically cast about 10 percent of presidential ballots, according to exit polls, but inched up to 13 percent of voters in 2008 amid the largest presidential election turnout since the 1960s. Before Obama's appearance on the ballot in 2008, Republicans typically carried about 1 in 10 votes among African-Americans. Recent polling among blacks shows Romney's support in the low single digits as he opposes the nation's first black president.
Nationally, nonwhite minorities now compose the majority of all births. There are multiple states where non-Hispanic whites are only a plurality or bare majority of all residents under 18. In Texas, whites are now slightly less than a majority of the 18-and-over population and just a third of the under-18 population.
Beyond Texas, the Hispanic population boom in the West has made Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico more competitive, and migration and birth trends suggest Arizona will soon follow suit.
South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott, the first black Republican elected to Congress from the Deep South since Reconstruction, said his party must acknowledge the federal government's past role in the lives of minorities. Republican ideas on school choice and small business can appeal to black voters in economically depressed neighborhoods with struggling public schools, he said.
"Whether you were a Reconstruction Republican in 1870 or ending school segregation in 1954 as a Democrat, the community that is impacted most by those decisions finds itself enamored with a big centralized control that seems to set captives free," said Scott, who represents a majority white district and is a chairman of Romney's Black Leadership Council.
Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society buttressed the notion of central government enabling advancement, Scott said, and "to be affectionate toward that system makes sense to me. But the argument moving forward is different."
Marcus Coleman, research fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, suggested that the GOP eye the potential of "reduced opportunity voters," mostly black men ages 35-44 in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida. Political parties tend to overlook them, Coleman said, simply because they live more than five miles away from the nearest place to get a photo ID that is acceptable for voting and don't own cars.
Rubio and Scott also cited familiar Republican hopes that hot-button social issues will attract more minority voters. Hispanics are overwhelmingly Catholic, and black voters are more religious than the general population.
Overall, 25 percent of Democrats described themselves as conservative in an October Associated Press-GfK poll. Higher shares of black (37 percent) and Hispanic (38 percent) respondents said they considered themselves conservative, though just 4 percent of blacks and 15 percent of Hispanics called themselves Republican.
Most of the GOP presidential field backed stiff immigration laws like those passed in Arizona and Alabama. Several supported a physical fence along Mexico's border. Besides his "self-deportation" position, Romney opposes the Obama-backed DREAM Act that would create a citizenship path for residents who were brought to the country illegally as children.
"Look, to suggest that Hispanics are in favor of open borders is wrong," Rubio said. "The problem is, if you live in a Hispanic community, invariably you know someone who is undocumented. You know someone who came here who wants to give their family a better chance. For you it's not just a statistical, philosophical debate."
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.