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.