Mitt Romney's biggest problem was staring him right in the face all along: the overwhelmingly white crowds that greeted him at parks, manufacturing plants, airport hangars and other stops on the campaign trail.
While the Republican nominee campaigned almost exclusively among white voters — whose share of the electorate has been shrinking for decades — President Barack Obama was rebuilding a dynamic coalition of young voters, women, African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics, the country's fastest-growing demographic.
Obama captured 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, helping him lock down key swing states like Colorado, Nevada and Florida. Less noticed was the 73 percent support Obama drew from Asian-Americans, an emerging force in states such as Virginia, an 11 percent improvement from 2008.
Romney got the largest share of the white vote for a Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984 and still lost.
The 2012 election has forced the GOP to the edge of a demographic cliff. Unless something is done to effectively end the decades-old Southern Strategy of appealing mainly to white voters, Republicans face an uncertain future.
"We have to accept America as it is today and not America as Ward Cleaver saw it," said GOP strategist John Weaver. "We're two or three elections away from Texas becoming a swing state," he added, referring to the reliably Republican state's rapidly growing Hispanic population.
Whites still make up the largest voting bloc, but the group continues to slide, to 72 percent of the electorate from 74 percent four years ago and 77 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans all boosted their share of the electorate. In Florida, there are 300,000 more Hispanic voters today than in 2008, and 150,000 more black and Caribbean-American voters.
All told, Obama captured 80 percent of the nonwhite vote. It made up for his slide among white voters, who favored Romney by 20 percentage points. Voters age 18 to 29 also grew in numbers, and Obama again won them handily.
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The Republican Party finds itself not only behind the demographic curve but out of step on issues gaining national acceptance, like same-sex marriage and immigration reform.
On Tuesday, 65 percent of voters nationally said they supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents, something Republicans have largely dismissed as amnesty. Maryland, Maine and Washington state became the first to approve gay marriage by popular vote, while Minnesota voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
"Republicans are a Mad Men party in a Modern Family America," Republican consultant Matthew Dowd said on Twitter after the election. "They need to adapt to 21st-century country and demography."
The increasingly polarized electorate raises questions about where the country stands four years after electing the first black president. During the campaign, Romney and his supporters frequently suggested the president didn't understand American values.
Conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly lamented on Fox News Tuesday night that Obama was headed to victory "because it's not a traditional America anymore. The white establishment is the minority." He suggested, as Romney did during the campaign, that Obama's backers are in search of government handouts.
"The racial divide in this election presents the nation with a serious choice: retrench or reach out," said Charlton McIlwain, co-author of Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Elections. "More than anything else, it means that as a nation we must rethink our ideas of what it means to be an American. To do that, I think we are forced as a nation — those on the left, right and in between — to talk more honest, more openly and more frequently about race."
Simon Rosenberg, founder of the liberal New Democrat Network, said the color divide in Tuesday's election reflected not racism but the speed of demographic change.
"The racial transformation has been so rapid and so profound that a lot of people aren't comfortable with that. Both parties are struggling with this transition but clearly, the Democrats are doing a better job," he said.
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The long-term worry for Republicans is that Hispanics will go the way of black voters, who vote for Democrats by a 9-to-1 margin.
Republican strategists feel there is time to make an appeal, contending their message about smaller government and less taxes can be combined with a more welcoming tone and policies more geared to the middle class. The party has a stable of prominent Hispanics, from New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez to Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio laid claim to a more inclusive approach that did not abandon party values, saying after Romney's defeat, "The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them."
Any discussion about the direction of the party leads back to immigration.
Under President George W. Bush, who got 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, Republicans had an opportunity to lead the country toward reform. But a bipartisan deal in Congress fell apart amid fierce opposition from conservatives in 2007, and the GOP has maintained a harder line as Hispanics rapidly become more influential.
Hispanic support for Republicans fell to 33 percent four years ago and Romney did even worse — 27 percent — despite what his campaign said was an unprecedented Republican effort to attract Hispanics.
Now Republican hopes turn to leaders such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who warned his party about its immigration rhetoric, and Rubio, who has faced the same crosswinds on the issue.
He adopted the harder line in his 2010 Senate run, calling for tougher border security before any reform, but last year he began work on a proposal that would grant legal status to some children of illegal immigrants. Rubio never released the plan, however, encountering opposition from conservatives, and Obama filled the void with a program that accomplished a similar goal.
Tuesday's dramatic results may have provided the tipping point. Republicans see opportunity amid panic.
"The numbers tell the story and the numbers don't lie," said former state Rep. Juan Zapata, a moderate Republican from Miami. "People like Marco can articulate a conservative immigration policy, something that would be fair but respect the rule of law, but they have to fight off the people in the extreme right of the party, the people who are blind to the demographics in this country."
House Speaker John Boehner, who earlier this year declared his chamber wouldn't be able to pass Rubio's plan, said Thursday it was time to tackle the issue.
Sean Hannity declared on his radio show that he now supports a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented residents. Columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, "For the party in general, however, the problem is hardly structural. It requires but a single policy change: Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty."
Former Republican Party chairman Michael Steele observed Wednesday on NPR that every month, 50,000 Hispanics turn 18 years old. "If you're not wise and smart about how to engage the Hispanic community," he said, "we will go the way of the Whig (party) in very short order."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.