DENVER — Omayra Vasquez blinks and does a double take when asked why she voted to re-elect President Barack Obama. The reason for her was as natural as breathing.
"I feel closer to him," said Vasquez, a 43-year-old Federal Express worker from Denver. "He cares about the Spanish people."
Millions of Hispanic voters seconded that emotion Tuesday with resounding 71 percent support for Obama, tightening Democrats' grip on the White House and putting Republicans on notice that they must seriously court the nation's largest minority group if they want to win the presidency again.
According to initial exit polls, Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who backed hard-line immigration measures, came away with 27 percent Hispanic support, less than any presidential candidate in 16 years. It also was a sharp drop from the 44 percent claimed by President George W. Bush in his 2004 re-election after he embraced immigration reform.
"We could have won this election if the party had a better brand name with Hispanics," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "I don't believe there's a path to the White House in the future that doesn't include 38 percent to 40 percent Hispanic support."
Cardenas said Hispanics were only a large part of a worrisome trend in the electorate, which is increasingly comprised of younger and minority voters who traditionally do not back Republicans. If the 1980 electorate looked like the 2012 version, he added, Jimmy Carter would have defeated Ronald Reagan.
Matt Schlapp, who was political director of George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, drew parallels between the GOP's standing with Hispanics and the party's troubles with African-Americans, who now routinely back Democrats by 9-1 margins. "The idea that we would somehow copy that with the Hispanic community is troubling," he said.
Hispanics have long favored Democrats. But they have been trending even more sharply toward that party since Republicans stymied Bush's immigration proposal and favored hard-line immigration measures that critics decried as racially motivated.
Romney tapped an author of Arizona's controversial immigration law to advise him during the GOP primaries and called for "self-deportation" to lower the number of illegal immigrants. Obama, meanwhile, announced in June that immigration authorities would grant work permits to people brought here illegally as children who graduated high school or served in the military. The directive energized a Hispanic electorate that had been disappointed by Obama's inability to overhaul the U.S. immigration system.
Interviews with voters as they left their polling places this week found that Hispanics gave Obama his winning margin in Colorado, Nevada and Virginia. They also account for his narrow lead in Florida, where votes were still being counted on Thursday.
Even before the races were called, some Republicans took to the airwaves and social media to call on the party to pull back from its hard-line stance and embrace certain immigration reforms.
It's unclear whether the results would change the party's opposition to legalizing some illegal immigrants. In a conversation with the Des Moines Register last month, Obama predicted that GOP opposition could crumble after Hispanics delivered the White House to him. The conversation was initially off the record but later published with the president's consent.
"And since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt," Obama said. "Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community."
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would introduce immigration legislation next year and that Republicans would reject it "at their peril."
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