Bloomberg View (Opinion)
By Albert Hunt
January 24, 2016
Three years ago, high-level Republicans declared that after losing the popular vote in five of the past six elections, the party needed to appeal more to Hispanics to win the presidency. Immigration was a threshold issue.
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Hispanics are the fastest-growing slice of the electorate. The 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, took an anti-immigration stance and only got 27 percent of that vote. It hadn’t always been so. George W. Bush won almost 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, and 20 years earlier, by some estimates, Ronald Reagan did even better.
Today, however, this notion has been turned upside down. Donald Trump has soared to the top of the Republican presidential field with an immigration-bashing pitch. The billionaire businessman has set the agenda for other aspirants: Ted Cruz has hardened his anti-reform position, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have reversed course to adopt tougher-on-immigration stances and John Kasich has fudged.
More Republican politicians, along with some conservative commentators and strategists, now say Trump's hard line is good politics because it taps into deep cultural, economic and security fears.
There is plenty of demagoguery and racism to this appeal. Yet it is also being made by more thoughtful conservatives such as Reihan Salam, a top editor at the anti-Trump National Review. My Bloomberg View colleague, Ramesh Ponnuru, wrote recently that immigration, much like abortion decades ago, is becoming a defining test for Republicans with national aspirations.
Some of these advocates want to limit immigration to high-skilled workers, who are in demand, and keep out the less skilled, who they believe become a drag on society. (Most Democrats and Hispanics say that approach is a nonstarter.)
These Republicans claim that public opinion is moving their way, driven by economic frustration and new threats of terrorism. They note that Hispanics account for more than 5 percent of eligible voters in only three of the 10 national swing states: Colorado, Nevada and Florida. Whatever losses the party sustains among Hispanics -- and Asian-Americans also turned off by anti-immigration rhetoric -- will be more than offset, they believe, by energizing of alienated white voters.
Yet the white vote as a percentage of the total has been in steady decline, from 86 percent in 1984 to 72 percent in 2012. Romney won 59 percent of the white vote and still lost the election by four points. That means the Republican challenge will be to increase the overall percentage of the white vote, countering demographic trends, as well as their share of it.
This is a “risky strategy,” says Ruy Teixeira, who studies demographic voting patterns at the liberal Center for American Progress. He noted that most of the anticipated increases in eligible nonwhite voters wouldn't be produced by immigration but by the greater proportion of younger voters in these groups.
Developments in several swing states underscore his point. In Colorado, Hispanics will be about 16 percent of eligible voters this year, twice as large a segment as two decades ago; by 2030, that will rise to 23 percent.
In Virginia, where in 1980 there weren’t enough Hispanic or Asian-American voters to even measure, the state’s electorate this year will be about 5 percent Hispanic and almost 7 percent Asian. Fast-forward to 2030 and those two groups will make up about 18 percent of the Virginia electorate, while black voters will account for about 20 percent.
Or consider the experience of California. From 1952 to 1988, Republicans carried the state in nine of 10 presidential elections, held the governorship in the majority of those years and were competitive in congressional contests. In 1994, Republican Governor Peter Wilson won re-election by embracing crackdowns on benefits for immigrants. Republicans have paid a price ever since: The party's presidential candidate has been defeated in the state in every election and Republicans currently hold only 14 of California's 53 seats in the House of Representatives.
One former Republican presidential candidate fears this scenario could play out on the national level. Immigration is “killing our party,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, who dropped out of the race for the party's nomination last month. “Donald Trump today has an 81 percent disapproval rating with Hispanics. The Democrats will destroy this guy.”
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