Immigration Reform Is Not the Key to the Latino Vote

Will GOP support for immigration reform convince low-income Latino voters to favor Republicans, who are skeptical about increasing redistribution, over Democrats, who are enthusiastic about doing so? Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA, discusses the Republican failure to win Latino votes in The Upshot without ever mentioning the fact that Latino households tend to earn substantially less than U.S. households as a whole. She instead focuses on immigration policy. Drawing on data from Latino Decisions, a polling firm, she argues that to win Latino voters, Republicans must champion immigration reform:

Latino Decisions calls immigration a “gateway issue” for Latinos and the Republican Party. According to their data, nearly two-thirds of registered Latino voters say they would be willing to listen to Republicans on other issues if they stopped promoting deportation policies, like defunding DACA. But to get their attention, immigration overhaul must be part of the call.

While I’m sure that Latino Decisions is scrupulously objective on the subject of immigration reform (its survey was sponsored by the Center for American Progress Action Fund), there are other data points that are worthy of note, e.g., that Latino voters consistently identify education and jobs and the economy as more important issues than immigration. To be sure, this is consistent with the notion that immigration really is a “gateway issue.” But Vavreck should acknowledge that many Latino voters explicitly state that they consider immigration reform to be a lower priority issue that other issues that speak more directly to their near-term economic prospects.

Moreover, Republican candidates tend to fare better among high-income voters than low-income voters. The American Community survey estimates that the median household income in the U.S. was $58,328 as of 2012. The Latino median household income was $44,401 while the non-Hispanic white median household income was $68,530. This isn’t the sole explanation for why Republicans fare better among non-Hispanic whites than Latinos, to be sure, and there are groups (Jewish voters, Asian American voters) with median household incomes that are substantially higher than that of non-Hispanic whites yet which nevertheless vote Democratic in large numbers. Latino voters do not appear to adhere to this pattern. As Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has observed, Latino voters were more Republican relative to the country as a whole in the presidential election of 2012 than they were in the presidential elections of 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, and 1996. What explains Republican success among Latino voters in 2000 and 2004? One could attribute relatively high Latino support for the GOP in 2000 and 2004 to George W. Bush’s enthusiastic support for immigration reform. It is also true, however, that Latino household wealth was increasing in this era while it sharply decreased in the wake of the housing bust. When Latinos felt prosperous, they might have been more open to a Republican economic message that places an emphasis on self-reliance and asset ownership. Conversely, the bust might have contributed to a sense of economic vulnerability among Latino voters, which in turn inclined them to be more supportive of candidates backing an increase in transfers to low-income households and debt relief. 

Vavreck rests her analysis on the following finding:

Latino registered voters were more likely to say they would consider voting for Mr. Ryan in 2016 if they heard the first statement [“we should welcome anyone who is committed to America”] — 47 percent said they would consider voting for him. When they heard only the “rule of law” statement [“we believe in the need to have better security on our border”], just a third said they would do so.

To be clear, the share of Latino voters who would consider voting for Ryan increases by 14 percentage points. Note that the question isn’t presented in binary fashion, i.e., these voters are being asked if they’d consider voting for Ryan in isolation, without any consideration as to whether Ryan might have a Democratic opponent in this notional presidential election (I assume he would) or what this Democratic opponent might say about immigration policy. Vavreck also ignores the possibility that there might be some other set of issues that might increase the share of Latino voters who would consider voting for a Republican candidate. For example, low- and moderate-income Latino voters might be more inclined to back Ryan if he favored a large expansion of the child credit, a policy that Democrats might have a difficult time matching in light of their competing domestic policy priorities. 

Vavreck concludes on the following note:

The Republican Party can compete with Democrats for the votes of Latinos, even young Latinos, without alienating the majority of its voters. But to earn support from this fast-growing segment of the American population, these survey results suggest the party is going to need leaders and candidates strong enough to stand up to the few who have hijacked its policy on immigration.

Given the fact that the Senate bill will sharply increase immigration in the coming years despite the overwhelming opposition of the broader electorate to such an increase, it seems more plausible to suggest that it is the Republicans who favor the Senate bill who have attempted to hijack the party’s policy on immigration and have failed to do so. 

A more promising approach for wooing Latino voters, I would suggest, would be for Republicans to offer an economic agenda that is more appealing to middle-income voters. An immigration policy that, like those of Canada, Australia, and Switzerland, tends to increase incomes at the low end of the income distribution somewhat while decreasing them modestly for those at the high end of the distribution would be entirely compatible with that approach. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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