How Republicans' Nasty Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric May Come Back to Bite Mitt Romney on the Ass This Election Day

Election '16

Latino voters are highly engaged in this year's election, and they may provide a surprise in key swing-states on Election Day. It wouldn't be the first time – just two years ago, an unexpected surge of Latino votes were widely credited for giving Harry Reid an unexpected victory over Sharron Angle in the Nevada senate race.

It's thought that the polls missed because of pollsters not offering the option of surveying in Spanish, and the fact that the Latino population skews younger and more working-class than the population as a whole – which means that more Latinos rely on cell-phones rather than landlines (automated polls are barred by law from calling cell-phones).

This year, there may be a similar gap between the Latino share of the electorate projected by the polls and the actual electorate on Tuesday. According to Gallup's view of the 2012 electorate, Latinos will make up 7 percent of the voting population – just one percentage point more than in 2008 and 2004. But the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates that Latino registration has increased by at least 26 percent since 2008.

And these voters are fired up, according to the Latino Decisions tracking poll that's been in the field for the past 11 weeks – a poll conducted solely by live bi-lingual interviewers. The poll found that “Sixteen percent of respondents indicated that they had already voted early, with another 73% saying they were certain to vote, reflecting increasing levels of enthusiasm over the course of this poll.” The pollsters concluded that their results suggest that “President Obama is poised to win a record high share of the Latino vote, and in turn likely to win key swing states and enough electoral college votes to retain the presidency.”

Among likely Latino voters, those with consistent vote history or have already voted, 73% say they plan to vote for Obama compared to 24% for Romney and 3% undecided. If Obama wins 73% or higher of the Latino vote, it would eclipse the 72% won by Bill Clinton in his landslide re-election in 1996, and mark the highest total ever for a Democratic presidential candidate.

In a press release, Monica Lozano, CEO of impreMedia, which conducts the poll, said, “All indications are that Latinos are motivated and will turn out in record numbers proving once again that this electorate is critical for any national candidate to win.” Fifty-five percent of likely voters in the poll said they're more enthusiastic about voting in 2012 than they were in 2008.

If Romney only manages 24 percent of the Latino vote, it will mark the continuation of a steep decline in support from the fastest growing demographic in the United States. George Bush is believed to have won 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 – a high-water mark for Republicans – but that declined to 31 percent for John McCain in 2008.

It's hard to overstate how much damage the Republican Party has done itself by pandering to the nativists in its ranks. It's not just the party's position on the policies – its obstruction of comprehensive reform for the past 6 years, the “show me your papers' laws springing up in red states across the country, clap-trap about how official documents should offer “English-only” or the horrors of “self-deportation” or blocking the DREAM Act – it's the tone. It's the hate. It's the party's embrace of Joe Arpaio, Jan Brewer and Russell Pearce -- and their brand of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

That's why the party is doing so poorly despite the fact that Latinos tend to be entrepreneurial and skew conservative on social issues (less so in recent years) – it was none other than Ronald Reagan who said that “Hispanics are Republicans, they just don't know it yet." Latinos who identify as conservative outnumber those who consider themselves liberal by significant margins, and many of those right-leaning folks are going to cast a vote for not only Obama, but Democrats down the ticket. Such is the degree of their alienation from the Republican party.

Republicans deluded themselves into believing that by focusing on “illegals,” they wouldn't pay a price with Latino citizens. It's true that a majority of native-born Latinos favor cutting down on the undocumented population. But the tone -- the xenophobia -- is seen as an assault on the entire community, native- and foreign-born, with papers and without. 16 million Latinos live in “mixed status” households – with at least one citizen and one unauthorized immigrant. 

If Obama wins, we will hear a lot about a coming “civil war” within the ranks of the Republican establishment, and Latinos will be a big part of that conversation. The “pragmatists” will insist that the party needs to shun the nativists and then everything will be fine – Latinos will come back into the fold. But history suggests that, once situated firmly within one party's camp, groups of voters are not easily dislodged.

California provides an object lesson. Before 1994, it was a swing-state, with a very strong Republican party. In fact, California went for the Republican in every presidential race between 1952 and 1988 except for 1964, when Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide. Fourteen of the state's eighteen governors in the 20th century were Republicans.

Then, in 1994, Governor Pete Wilson hooked his wagon to Proposition 187, a bill that would deny unauthorized immigrants access to all public services, including education. Latinos opposed it in large numbers. But then, as now, it wasn't just the policy but the tone that mattered. As Kathy Olmstead put it, “he made anti-immigrant fervor the center of his campaign, and behind him his party climbed on the anti-immigrant bandwagon.”

White anxieties about the rising Latino population soon boiled into racial resentments, driven in no small measure by Wilson’s gritty, noir advertising that played to fears of lawless, dark-skinned immigrants overwhelming the state of California. Mexican-Americans, some of whose families had been in California since the eighteenth century, were soon enduring taunts and challenges to “become a citizen or go back where you came from.”

The once-proud California Republican party has been relegated to the sidelines in the Golden State ever since. Before prop-187, Democrats had a 6-point advantage in California elections, according to Olmstead. In 1998, Gray Davis, a deeply flawed candidate, won Latinos by a 61-point margin. In 2002, the GOP failed to win a single state-wide race. It hasn't recovered since.

The Latino population in the United States skews younger than whites. Almost 20 percent were under the voting age in 2010, and every cycle more will join the electorate. The chickens have only begun to come home to roost; the GOP is going to be in trouble for a long time, as states like Texas and Arizona turn purple, and then possibly blue.

This image, from Pew Hispanic Research, should offer a terrifying glimpse of the future for Republican stalwarts. You reap what you sow.


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