“We’ve written often about the merits of immigration reform, and we have our own problems with parts of the Senate bill. But it’s worth spending some time on the larger politics of the issue, especially for Republicans. They’re caught between a passionate minority of their party–who oppose any reform that allows illegals a path to citizenship–and the larger electorate, which is more moderate and wants to solve the problem. Like Democrats on national security, this is a classic case in which pandering to the base will harm the GOP overall.
… No doubt this gets applause in some Republican precincts. But in the near term, meaning through 2008, Republicans would be far better off helping President Bush and John McCain pass something that takes immigration off the table. If the issue remains central to the 2008 debate, it will divide the GOP and the media will play up the split. Given the passions that immigration evokes on the right in particular, the issue could easily drown out other domestic policy messages the candidates would prefer to run on.
The longer term danger is that the GOP is sending a message to Latinos that it doesn’t want them in the party. And if that message sticks, Republicans could put themselves back in minority party status for a generation or more. Hispanics are the largest ethnic minority in the country, and their voting numbers continue to grow. Hispanics were estimated to be 8% of the electorate in 2006, compared with 6% in 2004 and 5.5% in 2000. Census data show that the number of Latino voters could rise to 10% or more by 2008. The demographic reality is that the GOP can’t be a majority party with Anglo-Saxon votes alone.
Like most voters, Hispanics care about more issues than immigration. But also like most voters, they take pride in their cultural identity and will reject candidates who send a message of hostility to their very presence in America. They know that when Tom Tancredo calls for an immigration “time out,” he’s not talking about the Irish. He means no more Mexicans, Hondurans or other Hispanics. If the GOP wants to be deserted by Hispanics for the next few election cycles, that sort of talk should do the trick.
A recent WSJ/NBC News poll showed that Hispanics now self-identify as Democrats rather than Republicans by 51% to 21%.
… In 2004, exit polls showed Republicans winning 44% of the Hispanic vote, up from 35% in 2000 and 38% in 2002. As Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg noted after last year’s elections, “the Latino vote had swung more heavily into the Republican camp than any other vote in America. They went from 21% in 1996 to 44% in 2004. This was a doubling of the Republican market share, one of the most significant political achievements of the Bush era.”
But in the run-up to last year’s midterm elections, Republicans chose to make immigration their lead issue. The GOP leadership in Congress encouraged talk radio and cable news shows to inflate the illegal alien problem, and Republican candidates took a hard-line anti-immigration stance in hopes of turning out GOP voters. It didn’t work. Not only did the strategy fail to help Republicans hang on to their majorities in Congress, but support from Hispanic voters fell to 29%, the lowest level this decade. If running against illegal immigration were a winner, Arizona’s J.D. Hayworth would still be in Congress.
By the way, the growth in the Hispanic population will continue regardless of what happens with immigration from now on. The number of Hispanics who already hold green cards guarantees that their share of the electorate will increase over time even if Congress could seal the Southern border tomorrow. The GOP should be competing for these voters rather than driving them away with a barely concealed message of “Mexicans, go home.”
Notwithstanding the small but loud segment of the GOP base preoccupied with the issue, hostility to immigration has never been a political winner. Like trade protection, people protectionism always polls better in telephone surveys than on Election Day. For a Presidential candidate especially, it sends a negative message rather than one of optimistic leadership.”