Will 14th Amendment Talk Cost the GOP More Hispanic Votes?

Republicans have taken to suggesting that Congress alter the first clause of the 14th amendment, which guarantees citizenship to those born in the United States--so far, Sens. Lindsey Graham, Jon Kyl, and Mitch McConnell have said the matter warrants looking into--and Hotline OnCall's Reid Wilson points out that this could backfire on the GOP by alienating more Hispanic voters, which have already been alienated by Republican immigration hard-liners in the past few years:

What they should fear is the wrath of Hispanic voters. The largest minority population in the country, Hispanics are also the fastest-growing. Polls show 4 in 5 Hispanic voters favor birthright citizenship, while Republicans largely oppose the idea. And Hispanics are quickly turning on the GOP for the party's perceived anti-immigrant rhetoric.

After comprehensive immigration reform efforts broke down during George W. Bush's second term, Hispanics began what could be an inexorable slide toward a permanent, and prominent, place in the Democratic coalition. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004; fewer than 1 in 3 Hispanics voted for McCain in 2008. Around the country, downballot Republicans performed even worse.

The Republican Party's relationship with immigration and Hispanic voters has been bumpy since 2007: in that year, John McCain pressed for a comprehensive bill drafted along with Ted Kennedy, which would have created a pathway to citizenship for those already here illegally. President Bush made it his last big domestic-policy push as president.

After it failed, McCain was lambasted by his Republican presidential primary opponents for pushing "amnesty" in the "McCain-Kennedy immigration bill." The other top candidates competed to bash him. Rep. Tom Tancredo, through his brief presidential candidacy, succeeded in shading the GOP's tone on immigration barely, but perceptibly, toward the hard line. (See this ad.) From then on, McCain stressed that he believed in border security first.

Perhaps sensing that all this had turned off Hispanic voters, McCain aired Spanish-language radio ads in multiple states during his presidential campaign. It wasn't enough: Hispanics voted 67% for Obama and 31% for McCain, according to Pew. Obama swept the two Southwestern states that were considered competitive--New Mexico and Nevada--and won Colorado, which also has a sizable Hispanic population and polled almost evenly between Obama and McCain at the time of the Democratic convention in Denver.

Meanwhile, the Hispanic population is growing. In the 1970 census, 4.7% of the U.S. population identified as Hispanic; in 2000, that figure had grown to 12.5%. The Census Bureau projects that it will find the Hispanic population at 15.5% in 2010 and at 24.4% in 2050. If Democrats, at any point, succeed in passing a bill that includes citizenship measures, millions of Hispanic immigrants, now undocumented, could gain voting rights.

As far as swing states go, Hispanic votes are concentrated in states that don't carry many electoral votes. Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado carry only 17 electoral votes combined. But Hispanic votes in other competitive states can still affect elections: in North Carolina, for instance, the Hispanic population multiplied by more than eight times from 1990 to 2007 (though Hispanics still only make up 6.7% of the state).

Hard-line talk on immigration, in theory, helps energize parts of the GOP base, and it resonates with those who favor a tough national security approach and prize the rule of law. But raising questions over the 14th amendment appear to be just the latest instance of this trade-off Republicans have made: pleasing the base and pushing a growing voter bloc toward Democrats.