John Judis vs. the Water Balloon Theory

by Reihan Salam

Consider the following passage, part of a longer post in which John Judis of The New Republic argues that Mitt Romney’s (cautious, reactive) presidential campaign will doom the GOP for the next decade:

What, then, could be the path to a Republican resurgence? The first thing would be to break the Democratic hold on the minority vote by winning back a reasonable share of the Hispanic vote—say, 40 percent or more, which Republicans once got. Success in this case depends on advancing policies on immigration that win favor among Hispanics, but it also may hinge on Republicans take the side of Hispanics in a battle over scare public resources with blacks. One could see this kind of black-Hispanic division surfacing in 2005 Los Angeles mayoral election pitting James Hahn, who enjoyed black support, against Antonio Villagarosa.

Judis is the co-author, with Ruy Teixeira, of The Emerging Democratic Majority, a paradigmatic example of realignment theory, i.e., the notion that American politics is defined by dominant political coalitions (the Sun party) and relatively weak opposition coalitions (the Moon party), which trade places during realigning elections. In his excellent book The Lost Majority, Sean Trende has made the case that realignment theory is not actually a very good guide to modern U.S. political history, and he has registered his disagreements with Judis and Teixeira in this space

Judis and Teixeira sketch out one path for the future, but there are a host of other possibilities. For example, are we really sure Latinos continue to go into the Democratic Party? Immigration is an important issue for these voters, but it isn’t the only issue, nor is it the predominate issue, nor is there even consensus on the issue. One-third of Latinos who thought immigration was “very” or “extremely” important in 2008 voted Republican. As Latino immigration drops off, and Latino population growth increasingly comes from second- and third- generation Latinos, the salience of the issue will likely decrease as well.

This has further implications, because as Latinos become more assimilated in the country, they tend to pick up GOP voting habits. If you control for ideology or income, the Latino vote isn’t terribly different from the white vote. This has obvious implications as the Latino immigration surge of the ’90s and ’00s gives way to children and grandchildren who go to college, start businesses, and move up the social ladder. My guess is that the future of Latinos is the future of the great wave of European immigration from the turn of the 19th Century, whose descendants generally vote Republican today. But we can’t really know for sure.

Or what about the “Arizona effect?” Jan Brewer certainly pushed Latinos out of the GOP coalition there, running well behind John McCain’s ‘08 margins with Latinos. But she actually ran ahead of McCain’s statewide ‘08 showing, because she ran better among whites. As Democrats increasingly tend to Latino interests, why does [Jonathan] Chait believe that the electorate becomes less racialized, rather than more? That seems counterintuitive to me.

Ultimately, coalitions are like water balloons. You push on one side, and the other side pops up. In Arizona, Brewer took steps that alienated Latinos (though she still won 28% percent of Latinos), and it cost her. But the Democrats’ stance alienated white voters. I think Chait would say that demographics still doom the GOP in the long run, but if the GOP is winning around 60 percent of the white vote, as opposed to the 50 percent it tended to win for Congress in the 80s or the 55 percent from the 90s, while still holding one-third of the Latino vote, it is going to take a long time for them to take on permanent minority status.

We know, for example, that Latino immigration to the U.S. is declining, for a number of complex, interrelated reasons related to demographic change in Mexico and other source countries, vigorous immigration enforcement, changing labor market conditions in source countries, and, of course, the housing bust. 

So success in wooing Latinos might have something to do with advancing policies that win favor with Latino voters, but it isn’t obvious that (a) these policies will be centered on amnesty or regularization (though in fairness Judis doesn’t make that connection explicit) and that (b) it will trump other considerations. If a Republican president were to preside over a sustained economic recovery that improved the labor market prospects of Latino voters, we might see the numbers shift for at least two reasons: (a) Latino voters might engage in sociotropic voting (the broader economy is better, so I will reward the incumbents) and (b) as Latino voters climb the economic ladder, they might become more tax-sensitive, etc. 

The broader problem with Judis’s analysis is the idea that there is such a thing as a lasting partisan majority in U.S. politics, a case that Trende makes to great effect in his book. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.