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WASHINGTON — Even more than the election that made Barack Obama the first black president, the one that returned him to office sent an unmistakable signal: The Republican Party must attract a more diverse group of Americans to its banner.
A number of analysts say the 2012 election — in which only one in three white males voted for the winner — is likely to be seen as a watershed in the nation's social and political evolution.
In the days since the election, there has been much hand-wringing among GOP leaders and strategists over where the party should go from here.
The Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, warned before the election — at that Florida fundraiser that was secretly recorded — that the party must do something to get Latinos into the fold.
“We're having a much harder time with Hispanic voters,” he said. “And if the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African-American voting bloc has in the past, well, we're in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.”
Romney got 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Obama got 71 percent.
The GOP must confront the nation's demographic changes: a shrinking share of white voters and growing proportions of minority voters, said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who once led House Republicans' national campaign effort.
“Instead of curling up in a ball and asking, 'Where did we lose conservative whites?' we need to add people to the coalition,” he said. “There are just not enough old white guys around.”
Added William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer: “This election makes it clear that a single focus directed at white males, or at the white population in general, is not going to do it. And it's not going to do it when the other party is focusing on energizing everybody else.”
Exit-poll data, gathered from interviews with voters as they left their polling places, showed that Obama's support from whites was 4 percentage points lower than whe got 2008.
Yet he won by relying on a minority-voter base, which was 2 percentage points larger as a share of the overall electorate than in 2008. The white share of the electorate is shrinking: 77 percent in 2004, 74 percent in 2008, 72 percent now.
The president built his winning coalition partly on issue differences he highlighted with Romney: In the months before the election, he announced support for gay marriage, granted limited legalization to young undocumented immigrants and put abortion rights and contraception at the heart of an ad campaign attacking Romney.
Obama got almost complete support from black voters. He had roughly 3-to-1 backing from the fast-growing Latino and black communities. He won over most women and by far most gays, although they are a far smaller group.
“Obama lost a lot of votes among whites,” said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist. “It was only because of high black turnout and the highest Latino turnout ever for a Democratic president that he won.”
Unless Republicans find an effective way to counter, analysts said, the demographic trend toward greater diversity will give the Democrats a significant edge in future presidential elections.
“We were wrong,” former House Speaker and GOP contender Newt Gingrich said of party strategists' assumption that a sour economy would doom Obama to one term. Part of the “rethinking” that party leaders should do, he said, is how to appeal to Hispanics and other demographic groups that supported Obama.
“Unless we do that we're going to be a minority party,” Gingrich said.
Still, the election was not an unblemished success for Democrats. Their loss of white votes is a potentially serious threat.
“I don't think you can be a major party and get down to support approaching only a third of the white population,” said Frey. “In some ways, maybe, Obama dodged a bullet here. If the Republicans had made a little bit of an effort toward minorities and kept their focus on whites, they might have won.”
Going forward, said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, the Democrats “will have demographics working for us, but it is not going to be so easy to keep it patched tight. It's going to fray.”
Without Obama on the ticket, for instance, socially conservative black voters might have been more inclined to follow the urgings of their ministers, who asked them to stay home to protest the endorsement of gay marriage.
This report includes material from McClatchy Newspapers and Bloomberg News.