Pundits routinely claim that the GOP is electorally doomed unless it competes more effectively for the Latino vote. The Latino population is growing so quickly, analysts tell us, that the United States will become a minority-majority country by 2040 (or 2050; estimates vary), meaning that the GOP could not possibly win an election while receiving only a third of the Latino vote and 10 percent of the black vote.
Almost invariably, this sort of analysis ends with a declaration that the Republican party must abandon its supposed opposition to immigration reform, as well as its support for voter-ID measures and Arizona-style immigration laws, and essentially adopt some version of the Democratic position on these and a host of other issues.
Much of that analysis is flawed. For the GOP to be competitive, it is neither necessary nor sufficient that it change its position on immigration policies. There are several reasons for this.
First, Latino support for Democratic policies on immigration is overstated. In 2008, only 46 percent of Latino voters told exit pollsters that illegal immigration was either “very” or “extremely” important to them and that they voted Democratic. In other words, a majority of self-described Latinos either thought that illegal immigration was fairly unimportant or thought that it was important and voted Republican.
Indeed, polls of Latino voters this cycle have consistently shown that for them — as for other voters — the most important issue is jobs. Immigration rates low on the list of issues they care about.
So why don’t Republicans perform better with Latino voters? The answer is simple: income. In 2008, Barack Obama won 73 percent of Latino voters earning less than $15,000 a year, and 57 percent of similarly situated white voters. (Although many Latinos are white, since “Latino” represents an ethnicity rather than a race, for simplicity’s sake I’ll use “white” as shorthand for “non-Hispanic white.”) Among voters making $100,000 to $150,000 a year, 59 percent of Latinos and 42 percent of whites went for Obama — a sizable difference, to be sure, but much less than the 24 points between Obama’s share of Latino and white voters overall.
In 2004 the pattern was even more pronounced. Among voters earning less than $15,000 a year, John Kerry won 58 percent of Latinos and 57 percent of whites — a nearly even split. Among those with annual incomes over $100,000, his share of both the Latino vote and the white vote dropped — to 50 and 37 percent, respectively.
In other words, Latino voters vote a lot more like white voters when you control for income. The difference is that there are more poor Latino voters than poor white voters, which creates the appearance of a larger divide between the groups when one looks only at the aggregated numbers.
But as the character of the Latino population changes from immigrant to second- and third-generation American, it should grow wealthier, and the income gap between Latinos and whites should close. This should, in turn, help to close the gap in voting patterns. To be sure, a gap of ten or fifteen percentage points between white and Latino voters is nothing to sneeze at. But neither does it spell ruin for the Republicans.
Second, we should question whether the Latino population will really grow as fast as many suggest. Consider this: The United States would still be 46 percent white if it absorbed every man, woman, and child from Mexico.
Of course, it will never do that. Every wave of immigration to our country — the Scotch-Irish in the late 18th century, the Irish and Germans in the mid-19th, and the great influx of southern and eastern European immigrants that washed my great-grandparents ashore at the turn of the last century — subsided almost as suddenly as it started.
At some point, most of the people in a given country who want to come to the United States have come, and most of those who’d rather stay put have stayed put. As they did in the European countries that sent immigrants to America over the past 200 years, standards of living in Mexico are rising. Mexicans increasingly enjoy a middle-class lifestyle, a fact that greatly reduces their incentive to move here.
So it should come as no great surprise that, according to the Pew Research Center, immigration to this country from Mexico largely stopped in the past few years, and last year there was probably more out-migration to Mexico than immigration from Mexico. Part of this is doubtless due to the weak economy. But it is also the continuation of a trend over the past few decades. The rate of growth of the Latino-immigrant population has declined substantially since peaking in the 1980s; the Mexican-born population grew by almost 200 percent in the 1980s, but in the first decade of the 21st century that figure had fallen to roughly 25 percent.
As Latino immigration to the U.S. drops off, the Latino population will continue to grow. But it will increasingly consist of second- and third-generation Americans. These voters will likely be not just wealthier but more assimilated. In a recent Pew poll, 62 percent of first-generation Latinos described their ethnicity by their country of origin, and only 8 percent described themselves as American. Among third-generation Latinos, only 28 percent self-described by country of ancestry, while 48 percent self-described as American. Only 34 percent of foreign-born Latinos consider themselves “a typical American,” compared with 66 percent of third- and later-generation Latinos.
So the first and second points fit together hand in glove. Latino immigration will likely drop off in the coming decades, and increasingly the Latino population will be born in the U.S.A. That, in turn, means the Latino population will be increasingly assimilated, increasingly Americanized, and increasingly likely to vote Republican.
The third and final point is that we tend to observe more heavily racialized voting in states with large minority populations. And indeed, as the Democratic party has seen its base shift to non-white voters, we’ve seen white voters increasingly vote Republican.
In 1982 — the first year for readily available exit-poll data — congressional Democrats won 54 percent of the white vote, a figure roughly the same as their share of the overall national vote. In 2010, they won only 38 percent of the white vote, while their share of the overall national vote was nine points higher.
If we assume a nearly all-white electorate prior to 1952, that probably represents the worst performance for any major party among white voters in congressional elections since 1822. Republicans could have lost every Latino voter in the country in 2010 and still won a slight plurality of the vote for Congress.
Arizona offers a case in point. There Governor Jan Brewer embraced a controversial immigration law that many suggested would alienate the state’s Latino population. And it probably did. In 2008, John McCain won over 40 percent of the state’s Latino vote. Brewer won 28 percent in 2010. But Brewer ran ahead of McCain overall, because she won over 60 percent of the state’s white population. In other words, while the state’s policies might have alienated Latino voters, they were popular among white voters, who shifted toward the GOP.
As the first two points suggest, in the long term the disparity between the white and the Latino vote will become less of an issue as the category “Latino” loses its salience. Again, there is historical precedent for this; as recently as 1986, the nomination of Justice Scalia to the Supreme Court was seen as a bid to shore up the “Italian vote.” But very few analysts saw such motives at work in Justice Alito’s nomination in 2005, in large part because the Italian vote as such had disappeared. Eventually, so will the “Latino vote.” Until then, in the short to medium term, any loss of Latino support that Republicans experience because of their stances on immigration could well be offset by an increase in their share of the white vote.
Of course, none of this goes to the question of what policies Republicans ought to adopt. I myself am somewhat partial to more liberal immigration laws. But we should always bear in mind that, in a large, diverse country, every move to gain one member of a political coalition usually alienates another member.
Republicans (and Democrats), then, should build their immigration policies not out of concern for a future coalition that likely will never materialize. They should, instead, simply do what they think is right.
– Mr. Trende is senior elections analyst for Real Clear Politics.