By Andrew Thomas
It was, if nothing else, a fitting metaphor for the size and nature of the work before them. On March 27, 2013, four members of the “Gang of Eight,” a group of U.S. senators who have banded together to seek immigration reform, toured the Arizona-Mexico border. It was what Politico termed their “spring break” trip: Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, back in their home state of Arizona, hosting two fellow members of the Gang of Eight, Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
“In the last several years we have made improvements on the border,” McCain told the press later. The senators spoke of the need for more technology on the border, though they declined to say what future border security measures would be installed as part of their legislation, which was still being negotiated.
As they flew over the border near Nogales, a city that straddles both sides of the international border, they saw something that captured the magnitude of the problem. They saw a woman climb the border fence successfully. Senator McCain tweeted the event and informed the public that the Border Patrol later apprehended her.
Even as such events remind the nation of the severity of the situation, the senators remained confident a deal can be struck for new immigration legislation. One of the few known and certain components of the legislation being drafted is amnesty. The gang has agreed in advance the bill would grant probationary legal status to all illegal immigrants immediately—meaning they can remain in the country legally.
Yet as Republican establishment leaders treat this enterprise as the political salvation of the Grand Old Party, some observers are starting to question the very premise of the efforts. After all, if the political goal, accepted at its practical core, is to secure more Hispanic votes for Republicans, is this legislation truly the path to such success?
The Myth of the Romney Debacle
When we drill down below the conventional wisdom, and in particular when we examine hard polling data from Hispanic Americans, we find things are not as we have been told. The Republican Party’s challenges with Hispanics are of long standing and seemingly not connected to illegal immigration, but instead involve broader issues with the party’s platform and brand.
Consider first the much-discussed exit polls showing low Hispanic support for Mitt Romney in last year’s election. The results of a Fox News exit poll were typical. It found that 71 percent of Hispanics voted for President Obama and 27 percent for Mitt Romney. A Pew Research analysis of multiple exit polls confirmed this margin.
But grand political lessons should not be drawn from a single election. Here, we find Pew’s data much more illuminating, for they compared Romney’s showing to that of past Republican presidential nominees. This was not a one-time debacle because of GOP immigration rhetoric, but rather a long-term pattern of Republican inefficacy.
In 2008, John McCain won only 31 percent of the Hispanic vote. That too was not his fault; it is in fact a typical percentage for Republicans in the modern era. In fact, the average percentage of the Hispanic vote won by a Republican candidate for president for the past nine presidential election cycles, going back to the first Reagan victory in 1980, is just 32.9 percent.
Bob Dole fared the worst, losing to Bill Clinton among Hispanics by 51 points (72 percent to 21 percent). No serious observer would contend that Bob Dole was or appeared to be an anti-Hispanic bigot.
George W. Bush received a greater share of the Hispanic vote. In the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, he lost the Hispanic vote by 27 and 18 points, respectively. But there were important differences. First, he received a higher share of the overall vote than McCain and Romney. Bush was the former governor of Texas, and performed especially well among Hispanics in that state who were his former constituents. And Bush was not running against Obama, a racial minority with whom Hispanic voters naturally found common ground.
In other words, Romney did not nosedive because of tough anti-immigrant GOP rhetoric swirling around him. He merely performed slightly lower than average against America’s first minority president.
Advocates of immigration reform as a brand-fixer for Republicans overlook broader issues that are at work. Hispanics favor a larger role for government than do white Americans or Republicans. And these differences are not going away.
Hispanic voters make political decisions as other Americans do. A Pew Research survey last year asked Hispanic registered voters to name the most important issues facing the country. Fifty-five percent listed education as “extremely important.” This was followed in descending order by a familiar litany of other top concerns: jobs and the economy (54 percent), health care (50 percent), federal budget deficit (36 percent) and taxes (33 percent). Immigration fell between deficits and taxes at 34 percent.
Accordingly, freshman Senator Ted Cruz, a virtual unknown at the start of his come-from-behind campaign in the Lone Star State of Texas registering just one percent in the polls, wrote in the Washington Post last January that the GOP should stand for “opportunity conservatism” by conceptualizing and articulating “every domestic policy with a single-minded focus on easing the ascent up the economic ladder.”
Further, he explained, “Under the Obama administration, the unemployment rate climbed above 10 percent among Hispanics last year and to 14 percent among African Americans. Yet Republicans never talked about this.”
However, Hispanics favor a larger role for government than the population as a whole. A 2012 survey by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Foundation found two out of three Hispanics favored a “larger federal government with many services” over a “smaller federal government with fewer services.” For all American adults, in contrast, 55 percent preferred a smaller federal government with fewer services and only 40 percent supported a larger federal government.
An Allstate/National Journal/Heartland Monitor poll in 2011, echoing Ronald Reagan, offered more confirmation. Forty-two percent of white Americans, a plurality in the poll, agreed that “in the current economic environment government is not the solution to our economic problems, government is the problem.” Only 17 percent of African Americans and 25 percent of Hispanics felt the same.
In a Latino Decisions poll in 2012, 61 percent of Hispanic voters supported Obamacare, with only 25 percent who want it repealed. This contrasts with solid, sustained opposition to the law by a majority of Americans overall and white voters in particular.
Finally, the overwhelming Hispanic vote for Obama reflected a common belief that he and his party would do a better job of addressing the whole range of issues facing the country. Hispanic voters concluded Obama would better handle the economy, the chief issue for all voters of all races in 2012. A Latino Decisions poll, taken on November 5, 2012, the eve of the election, found that, when asked which candidate and political party “do you trust more to make the right decisions and improve our economic conditions,” 73 percent of Hispanic voters chose Obama and the Democrats and only 23 percent selected Romney and the Republicans. Those results mirrored almost precisely the election returns among Hispanic voters according to exit polls.
There is, then, a broader dissonance between the Republican Party and Hispanic voters on issues well beyond immigration. Hispanics prefer bigger government, even as this is antithetical to the core tenets of the Republican Party platform. Even the most committed Republican immigration reformers in Congress are not proposing that the GOP jettison its limited-government stance and rhetoric.
A Path to Lasting Political Success
The assumption that immigration reform will improve Republican political prospects is, then, questionable at best. George Hawley, a political science professor at the University of Houston, recently published a study which further reinforced this conclusion. He found that Republican incumbents seeking reelection to Congress who had supported liberalizing immigration laws did not fare better in the 2006 elections than did Republican Congressmen who opposed such legislation. In fact, Hawley concluded that the reform-minded Congressmen averaged less than 30 percent support from Hispanics—nearly identical to the totals that Mitt Romney gained from Hispanic voters in the presidential race six years later.
Hawley argues that the Republican Party may lose some of its base voters by trying to win over Hispanic voters, who are more in line with the Democratic Party on other issues besides immigration reform.
What, then, are Republicans to do? They risk alienating the base they have, which allows them to remain competitive nationally and win and retain a majority in Congress, by going along with amnesty. Furthermore, they will always be “outbid” by Democratic leaders, presumably, when it comes to accommodating illegal immigration.
A better approach is to be true to core Republican principles and accentuate areas of commonality with Hispanic voters, of which there are many. For example, a vigorous national defense benefits all and offers fertile common ground. Hispanics understand the need for deficit reduction as a way to provide for the needs of future generations, something that accords with love of family.
A “common ground” approach presents a more likely path to long-term political success than turning the Republican Party into the “me too” amnesty party.