Know Thy Majority

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Daniel Larison writes:

Despite the best efforts of the Mehlmans and Martinezes to make the GOP ”relevant” to constituencies that don’t care much for Republican policies, the GOP’s core demographic remains and presumably will remain for the foreseeable future middle-class, married white voters with families.

Yes, except that the core demographic isn't enough. The GOP can build a political majority around the married, Middle-American middle class, but not if it remains a lily-white party: It needs larger percentages of the Hispanic and yes, the African-American vote to offset the growing Democratic advantage among white, socially-liberal Bobo voters who might have been Reaganites a generation ago. (The growing familial disarray in the white working class is likewise a political boon to the Democrats, since single mothers don't often vote Republican.) Bush's insight in this regard was correct, but his strategy for winning a larger share of the minority vote rests on three wobbly pillars - gay marriage, which won him Ohio in '04 but won't be a national issue for much longer; the war, which worked until it became clear how badly he mismanaged it; and amnesty for illegal immigrants, which is aimed at precisely the wrong part of the Hispanic demographic. There's no evidence that middle-class Hispanics, the people the GOP needs to woo, are likely to reward the Republicans for legalizing millions of maids, dishwashers, and migrant laborers, and the migrant laborers themselves certainly aren't going to vote for the GOP anytime soon.

Not everyone understands this point. "For all the scare tactics of the extreme right about the death of the GOP, we know one thing," one of Jonah G.'s emailers writes. "Since the 86 bill the hispanics trend to the the GOP has been increasing not decreasing." First off, this isn't true: The GOP's share of the Hispanic vote dropped in 1988, 1992, and 1996, before rising under Bush. Second of all, you would expect the Republicans to do better and better among Hispanics as the last amnesty receded into the past, and its beneficiaries assimilated and started to move up in the world. Whereas another amnesty - or whatever we're calling the Senate bill - undoes these gains and takes the GOP back to square one, by adding millions of natural Democratic constituents to the voting pool. Regularizing these millions' status might be the right thing to do, for moral reasons - I think it is, but only as a follow-up to a successful interdiction campaign - but it will involve the Republicans making electoral sacrifices for the greater good, rather than reaping a windfall of new GOP voters, as the more Pollyannish pro-immigration conservatives would have one believe.

What's weird is that the Bush Administration knows this, in some part of its brain - its campaign against the ephemeral menace of voter fraud is driven, in part, by the understanding that if large numbers of illegal immigrants vote, the Democrats will be the beneficiaries. Yet somehow they wave this point away when it comes to actually legalizing the illegal population, with lots of bright talk about how Hispanics are natural Republicans. They aren't: They're like any immigrant population, natural Democrats while they're in the barrio and natural Republicans once they've reached the suburbs. If the GOP wants to win Hispanic votes, it should worry about smoothing that transition: It's the politically savvy way to tackle the needs of Hispanic America, and the right one.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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