Republicans have heard dire warnings about the impact of border-security and immigration rhetoric on the growing bloc of Latino voters. The GOP will lose the next generation of the American electorate if the party does not moderate its stance on illegal immigration, especially in the tone of the debate. The fastest-growing segment of the population will soon grow large enought to punish the Republicans and reduce them to permanent minority status.
Not so fast, writes Steve Malanga in today's Los Angeles Times. Not only has the Latino bloc been overestimated, it has not given all that much support to the GOP in any case -- and immigration is nowhere near as important to Latino voters as assumed:
Just days after the election, for instance, Dick Morris, a former pollster and advisor to President Clinton, declared that Latinos had elected Bush; they represented 12% of the electorate, Morris reasoned, and 45% of them had pulled the levers for the president, enough to be decisive.
The Latino vote for Bush was far from decisive, however, and it may be years before it plays a pivotal role in a national election. Latinos may represent about 14% of the U.S. population, but they constituted just 6% of the 2004 electorate -- 7.5 million voters out of 125 million. According to Census Bureau data, only 34% of the nation's adult Latino population registered to vote in 2004, and 28% voted. By contrast, 67% of the country's adult white, non-Latino population and 56% of its adult black population voted in 2004. Black voters outnumbered Latino voters nearly 2 to 1 in 2004.
Exit polls taken during 2004 also indicate Latino support for Bush may have been exaggerated. In different polls, Bush's share of the Latino vote ranged from a high of 44% to a low of 33%. Yet subsequent academic studies have estimated Bush's actual level of Latino support at the lower end, somewhere between 35% and 37%. Seen in this context, the "swing" of voters from Bob Dole, who garnered 21% of the Latino vote in 1996, to George W. Bush was hardly historic. In 1984, Ronald Reagan captured 37% of the Latino vote -- a performance at least equal to Bush's.
This suggests that the key to winning Latino votes may be running good candidates, not pandering. Latino voters themselves seem to agree. A 2004 Washington Post poll found that immigration was the least important issue among Latino voters, with only 3.5% placing it at the top of their concerns.
One point of criticism remains valid. The passions of the immigration debate flowed over at times into xenophobia. When discussing policy, it is always best to focus on the data and not to make assumptions about the whole based on individual anecdotes. It's a rhetorical trap set over and over again by opponents of conservatives, and the most recent example of this was the S-CHIP debate. Instead of debating the Frosts -- who qualified for the program before its expansion anyway -- we should have been debating why smokers had to subsidize middle-class families' health insurance at all. Liberals want us arguing over individual cases in order to portray conservatives as meanies, bigots, and so on.
The data Malanga uncovers opposes almost everything we've been hearing about the Latino bloc. Republicans managed to garner a little more than a third of those voters when Reagan and Bush 43 got elected and re-elected. Bob Dole only got 21%. What does that mean? Right now, we only have a ceiling of around a third of this bloc, and a floor of about a fifth. That's not a large window in which to work, and given the overall voting numbers, it's not something that should change party policy, especially on national security.
The immigration numbers seem especially intriguing. The Southwest has Hispanic families that go back centuries, and who do not especially treasure illegal immigration. Malanga notes that 78% of Arizona's Latinos oppose expanded immigration, and one can find similar sentiment in New Mexico. The warnings on immigration policy stem from an assumption that Hispanics automatically want amnesty and open borders, but at least in the Southwest, that is a false assumption.
As in the case with the African-American community, closer engagement would eliminate many of the false assumptions on both sides. Republicans need to make the argument that tighter border security and immigration policy will help protect not just national security, but also jobs and wages for American citizens and legal residents. The GOP has a shared set of values on life issues with the Hispanic community, and a shared focus on strengthening the family. If we make those arguments, we can lift both the floor and the ceiling of our share of their vote, and do so without mindless pandering.