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On immigration, demographics and math

With the immigration debate now moving over the Republican-led House of Representatives, MSNBC.com's Benjy Sarlin writes how some conservatives believe that wooing Latino voters is less important than improving on their performance with white voters.

On election night, Fox News anchor Brit Hume called the “demographic” threat posed by Latino voters “absolutely real” and suggested Mitt Romney’s “hardline position on immigration” may be to blame for election losses. On Monday, Hume declared that argument “baloney.” The Hispanic vote, he said, “is not nearly as important, still, as the white vote.”

Sean Hannity, a reliable bellwether on the right, has been on a similar journey since the fall. He announced the day after President Obama’s re-election that he had “evolved” on immigration reform and now supported a “path to citizenship” in order to improve relations with Hispanic voters. Hannity has now flipped hard against the Senate’s bill.

“Not only do I doubt the current legislation will solve the immigration problem,” he wrote in a June column, “but it also won’t help the GOP in future elections.”

Hannity and Hume didn’t arrive at their latest destination by accident. They’re just the latest figures on the right to embrace the compelling new message that’s whipping Republicans against immigration reform while still promising a better tomorrow for the GOP’s presidential candidates.

It's uncertain if Republicans supporting immigration reform will result in more Latinos who vote Republican in presidential contest, but this is pretty clear: White voters are only declining as a share of the electorate.

Consider: In 2000, whites made up more than 80% of all voters, according to the exit polls. In 2004, that share dropped to 77%. In 2008, it declined to 74%. And in 2012, white voters made up 72% of the electorate. At that current pace and because of demographic trends, you could expect -- though it's not a sure thing -- that the white percentage could drop to 70% by 2016 and 68% by 2020.

Also consider: President Obama won just 39% of the white vote in 2012, which was the worst performance for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1984. But Obama carried more than 80% of the non-white vote, which gave him his 51%-47% popular-vote win over Mitt Romney.

So extrapolate that out to 2016 and 2020, given the demographic trends showing that the country is on pace to be a majority-minority nation 30 years from now. In 2016, a future Democratic presidential candidate -- say Hillary Clinton? -- who gets 40% of the white vote and 80% of the non-white vote could win 52% of the popular vote. In 2020, that overall percentage would jump up to nearly 53%.

Now it’s important to acknowledge the difference between presidential elections (where there’s greater minority participation) and midterm elections (where there’s less). It’s also important to state that it’s impossible to predict who, exactly, will turn out in an election. Indeed, RealClearPolitics' Sean Trende has cautioned that it's very possible that future Democratic presidential candidates don't get 80% of the non-white vote, especially when the nation's first African-American president no longer remains on the top of the ticket. And that’s probably a good assumption.

But here's the power of changing demographics: In 2004, John Kerry won 41% of the white vote and about 71% of the non-white vote, giving him 48% of the overall popular vote. But come 2016, if the white share is at 70% and non-white at 30%, then Kerry's '04 performance gets to you to 50% of the popular vote.

Let that sink in -- Kerry goes from a losing 48% to a possibly winning 50%.

So while it's debatable if the Republican Party can benefit from supporting the immigration legislation, it isn't debatable that the white portion of the electorate is getting smaller -- and that has consequences for future elections.