If the Republican party is going to win a presidential election any time soon, it’s said, it has to embrace a comprehensive-immigration-reform bill like the one currently being considered in the Senate. A new analysis of recently released U.S. Census data suggests that the truth might be just the opposite.
The theory goes: Because Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in America, and because the GOP’s white-working-class base is shrinking as a share of the electorate, it’s time to embrace the former’s priorities — and to play down the latter’s. A report from the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports less immigration in the United States, calls this conclusion into question.
It turns out that while Hispanics are indeed increasing as a share of the electorate, their political influence is not yet particularly impressive: Turnout among eligible Hispanic voters was actually lower in the 2012 presidential election than it was in 2008, going from 50 percent to 48, while the Hispanic share of the electorate rose from 7.4 percent to 8.4 percent. Meanwhile, white voters represented 74 percent of the electorate in 2012 — and white voters without a college degree, still 44 percent.
If white turnout had been what it was in 2004, 4.7 million more white voters would have gone to the polls — a number almost equal to the margin by which Mitt Romney lost. Of course, Republicans don’t have the hold on the white vote that, say, Democrats do on the black vote, so this still would not have handed Romney the election. But the race would have been a good deal closer if white turnout had just been in line with pre-2008 elections. (Sean Trende made this case just after the 2012 election.)
The Republican National Committee, in its controversial spring 2013 report, made one policy suggestion for the party: Embrace comprehensive immigration reform, which will inevitably include some form of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Such a policy is likely to anger one of the most reliable demographic groups for the Republican party in recent elections, white voters without a college education, and to please Hispanics and recent immigrants. The new Census data is an important reminder that the electoral case for such a move is shaky at best.
Such calculations are of course rather crass, and slicing the electorate into categories of race and class is never a particularly healthy thing for any body politic. But it is an important component of any plan for political success — and one that advocates of more liberal policies never shy away from in their condemnations of conservative policies — and therefore deserves consideration.
CIS’s analysis suggests that, in order for the GOP to have won the 2012 popular vote without changing turnout levels, Romney would have had to increase his share of the Hispanic vote by 23 percentage points. Alternatively, he could have increased his share of the white vote by just three points. As Camarota notes, “if the GOP can’t get working-class whites out to the polls again, it’s very hard to see how they win another presidential election.”
Hispanics simply don’t represent a large enough chunk of the electorate to justify enacting sweeping legislation in the hope that it might soften them to one’s cause. Meanwhile, turnout among white voters — especially those without a college degree — has been weak in the last two elections, and accounts for much of the GOP’s poor showings in 2008 and 2012.
There are no easy answers to the question of how Republicans can reinvigorate the political participation of working-class white Americans, though the ills are obvious — as Camarota points out, “people without a college degree really aren’t doing all that well in this economy,” and they feel increasingly alienated from the political process (voter turnout among this group dropped four percentage points from 2004 to 2012).
Meanwhile, the Senate’s proposed comprehensive-immigration-reform legislation, Camarota says, “would seem to be precisely the kind of policy that would alienate those voters” — an amnesty to offend their law-and-order priorities, more low-skilled workers to push down wages, more legal beneficiaries to expand the welfare state, etc.
The problems of these voters are manifold, and the Republican party doesn’t have answers for many of them. In order to begin winning elections consistently again, it will need some. But in the meantime, the party can not afford to commit any unforced errors, such as embracing a policy despised by their demographic base, working-class whites — still almost half the American electorate.
It is certain that, in the long term, the Republican party cannot win on the basis of the white vote alone. Winning the hearts and minds of minority groups is a good goal for the party, but it is a long-term one. Camarota, pointing to dropping white turnout and the risks of Republican support for amnesty, contends that the GOP “has a more immediate problem they’re not thinking about.” Besides, down the road, a Gang of Eight–like bill might win Republican converts, but it would also add to the citizenship rolls millions of Hispanics and low-income immigrants, who look likely to vote Democratic.
Regardless, the results of the 2012 election indicate that, in the short term, the electoral case for comprehensive immigration reform — assuming it would win over some Hispanics and push down working-class-white turnout — is remarkably weak.
Arguments from electoral necessity explain much of the difference in Republican enthusiasm between the 2007 amnesty push and now, especially the 2013 measure’s strong support among the Republican political class. Perhaps they deserve more examination than they’ve gotten.
— Patrick Brennan is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.