The following is an excerpt from Matt Barreto and Gary M. Segura's new book, Latino America: How America's Most Dynamic Population Is Poised to Transform The Politics of the Nation. (PublicAffairs Books, 2014). Reprinted here with permission.
The decision by many Republicans during the middle part of the last decade to abandon the politics of Latino outreach championed by then President George W. Bush in favor of messaging and policies reminiscent of Pete Wilson–era Republicanism in California has led Latinos to increasingly cast their ballots for Democrats.* But is this movement away from the GOP and toward the Democrats indicative of a long-term national realignment akin to what occurred in California, or does it reflect responsiveness among Latino voters to short-term political conditions?
Clearly, some Republicans fear that the GOP is on the verge of a national Proposition 187 movement. During an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press in June 2013, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) declared that the Republican Party is “in a demographic death spiral as a party and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community in my view is to pass comprehensive immigration reform. If you don’t do that, it really doesn’t matter who we run [in 2016] in my view.” Graham’s comments came on the heels of a report that was inaugurated by Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus in the aftermath of the 2012 election. Among the report’s chief recommendations was that the Republican Party change its relationship with Latinos for one compelling reason:
If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence. It doesn’t matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies. In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our Party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.
The reasons for such introspection are obvious: during the past decade the country’s rapidly changing political demography has shifted a number of states (Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, and Virginia) from Republican to Democratic-leaning, and in coming electoral cycles these same dynamics threaten to put other Republican strongholds, such as Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas, into play. Latino political influence is emerging precisely at the moment when the size and voting power of the Republican base is waning. While the GOP continues to receive approximately 90% of its vote from non-Hispanic whites, that share of the population—almost 80% when Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency in 1980—is now just 63%.
Yet, despite these warnings, many Republicans would prefer to either ignore the immigration issue or, worse, continue down the path that resulted in Mitt Romney winning just 23% of the Latino vote in 2012. As a consequence, today we are witnessing another pivotal movement in immigration politics. The 113th Congress is considering a spate of immigration reform bills, reengaging the failed efforts of 2006 and 2007. Whether or not this latest moment accelerates or reverses the trends begun by Proposition 187 and reinvigorated by the 2006 Sensenbrenner bill is the central question. The outcome hinges on the passage (or failure) of comprehensive immigration reform legislation and the degree to which Republicans are allocated a share of the credit (or blame) for the outcome.
What can recent public opinion polling tell us about whether the immigration debate will matter to the future prospects of the Republican Party? The evidence suggests that there are significant political risks for the GOP in 2014 and beyond if comprehensive reform fails, and a substantial opportunity for improvement should the party play a constructive role in bringing such legislation to fruition. Specifically, we draw on recent polling conducted by Latino Decisions to examine Latino attitudes relevant to the debate over immigration reform.
Those who advocate no policy change on the part of the GOP argue that Latinos are not “a natural Republican constituency,” as many Republicans claim, but rather are irretrievably Democratic. As a consequence, immigration reform will only make more Democrats, not persuade Latino registered voters to support Republicans. Such a claim is ahistorical and rooted more in the last four election cycles than in any long-term assessment of Latino vote preferences.
Polling data suggest that a sizable number of Latino voters have cast a ballot for a Republican at least once in their life. As we report in Figure 10.1, a poll of registered Latino voters in 2013 showed that approximately half of all those answering (49%) recalled voting for Republican candidates in the past. So there is room for growth.3 Indeed, the shift in Latino support from Bush to Romney (40% to 23%) represents the largest inter-election movement of any racial and ethnic group during this period—and it’s all the more troubling given that Latinos cast roughly 5 million more ballots in 2012 than in 2004. Thus, the evidence suggests that as much as one-fifth of the Latino electorate may be available to a GOP candidate with the right qualities and absent the immigration albatross.
That as many as half of all Latino voters have shown a willingness to vote for candidates of both parties is critical to understanding whether— and how—action on immigration might have political effects. To assess whether Latino voters feel that the immigration issue could shape or re-shape their vote intentions, Latino Decisions used a split-sample experiment: we asked respondents how their vote intention might change if Republicans “tried to block” or “worked to pass” comprehensive immigration reform.
The results were striking. When prompted with the possibility that the GOP might work to pass immigration reform, 34% of Latino registered voters said that such an effort would make it more likely that they would vote for a GOP candidate, compared with only 13% reporting that it would make them less likely. About half said that GOP efforts on immigration reform would have no effect on their vote; both loyal Republican and loyal Democratic voters were in this group. By 21 percentage points, the movement among Latino voters is decidedly toward the GOP when the party works for comprehensive reform. By comparison, blocking immigration reform has real dangers for the GOP. When prompted with the possibility of this outcome, 59% of Latino voters said that it would make them less likely to support GOP candidates, compared with only 8% who viewed this possibility more positively. Fewer than 30% of our respondents said that such an action would have no effect.
The results illustrate two important points regarding the immigration debate and GOP prospects. First, things could get worse. That is, as bad as the GOP has performed in recent elections among Latino voters, the party is at risk of further reducing its already dismal standing. It is also worth noting that the party’s handling of immigration alienates other growth segments of the electorate, especially younger voters and Asian Americans.4 Thus, just as we saw in California, immigration politics creates spillover effects that could further hinder the GOP’s competitiveness. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the downside from opposition to immigration reform is larger than the upside from taking action. A key conservative talking point in the summer of 2013 was that there was no benefit to GOP candidates for enacting immigration reform. These data suggest that there is certainly a benefit from action, but a more significant cost incurred from inaction.
The GOP’s political calculations within the legislative context have sought to manage expectations of what reform might entail (for example, comprehensive versus piecemeal versus maintaining the status quo), while trying to set up the Democrats for the blame should reform fail. To this end, House GOP strategists have repeatedly attempted to construct the terms of the debate around border security and Democrats’ insistence on an all-or-nothing approach, in hopes of shifting blame to the Democrats if no bill emerges. There is little evidence in the polling that such an approach would be effective with the Latino electorate, as many see the party’s insistence on a “security first” approach as a Republican poison pill to kill reform.
Figure 10.3 illustrates the potential attribution of blame by Latino reg- istered voters should immigration reform falter. Over two-thirds (69%) of all voters surveyed would hold the GOP responsible for failure, while only 13% would point to the Democrats; another 11% would blame both parties equally. Moreover, the failure of immigration reform would have significant reputational effects on the GOP brand name.
Figure 10.4, which summarizes changes in voters’ affective reactions to the GOP under the failure scenario, illustrates three key points. First, the GOP brand is poor among Latino registered voters. The Republican party’s net favorability is -27, meaning that the share of voters who view the party positively is 27 percentage points smaller than the share of those who view it unfavorably. Second, when prompted with the possibility of the failure of immigration reform, things got significantly worse for the GOP. The party’s favorability dropped eleven percentage points (to 22%), while unfavorable views of the GOP climbed thirteen points, to 73%, creating a net favorability for the GOP of an astonishing -51. Perhaps more telling is the third finding reported in Figure 10.4. In the left-hand block, we report the same figures for respondents who reported having previously voted for GOP candidates; not surprisingly, the GOP’s reputation among these voters is higher. Unprompted, they had only a -1 net favorability. When prompted with the possibility that the GOP would stop immigration reform, however, even among these former GOP voters net favorability dropped thirty points, to a net -31.
So the polling evidence from the summer of 2013 makes clear that there is substantial opportunity for GOP electoral growth should the party embrace and advance immigration reform. But if the party is seen as the obstacle to enacting that legislation, it would shoulder most of the blame among Latino registered voters, resulting in further reputational and electoral erosion.