The gap between expectations and reality quickly came to a head in this year's Texas gubernatorial race, a contest that Democrats believed they could win with a nationally known candidate (state Senator Wendy Davis, of abortion-filibuster fame) and a renewed focus on grassroots organizing. But Davis has found herself badly trailing Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, recognizing that a conventionally liberal campaign focused on social issues is of limited utility in the Lone Star State, both in persuading Texas moderates and boosting Hispanic turnout.
The numbers for Texas Democrats, despite the Latino growth, are daunting even in the long term. While Hispanics comprised 38 percent of the state's population, according to the 2010 census, they made up only 20 percent of the 2008 electorate. In 2010, Democrats nominated one of their strongest challengers to run against Governor Rick Perry—moderate Houston Mayor Bill White—yet he got only 28 percent of the white vote.
By the time Texas has enough registered Hispanic voters to make a political difference, it's possible that many second-generation Latinos will be assimilated and less reliably Democratic than their parents. Already, researchers are finding that a sizable number of Hispanics later self-identify as white, dampening the trajectory of steady Hispanic growth into the future.
In Arizona, where immigration has played a central role in the state's politics, racial polarization has become more pronounced during Obama's presidency. In 2008, with immigration-reform supporter McCain as the GOP nominee, there was only an 18-point gap between his performance among whites (59 percent) and Hispanics (41 percent). In 2010, with McCain touting his border-security bonafides as he ran for reelection to the Senate, that margin grew to 25 points. Meanwhile, Governor Jan Brewer, who signed one of the most restrictive immigration laws in the country that year, won 61 percent of white voters and just 28 percent of Latinos. By the 2012 presidential election, there was a 41-point gulf between Mitt Romney's standing with whites and Hispanics.
That year's Senate race offered a preview of how Democrats can compete in the future. Democrat Richard Carmona came within 3 points of GOP Senator Jeff Flake, on the heels of overwhelming Hispanic support and running ahead of Obama with white voters. But even that wasn't enough to prevail, despite Carmona's unique appeal to both moderate whites and Hispanics as George W. Bush's surgeon general.
For Democrats, Georgia may offer the best long-term opportunities of the three states that Plouffe cited, but the polarization between the state's significant (and growing) minority population and the conservative white vote is still gaping. In 2008, the last year exit polling was conducted in the state, Obama won 98 percent of the African-American vote and only 23 percent of the white vote. With a just a little more support from white voters and continued minority growth, winning a statewide election is seemingly within reach.