GOP Can't Win Latinos Over Immigration

FILE - This Nov. 6, 2012 file photo shows voters lined up in the dark to beat the 7 p.m. deadline to cast their ballots at a polling station in Miami. House Republicans still smarting from their poor showing among Hispanics in the presidential election are planning a vote in late November 2012 on immigration legislation that would both expand visas for foreign science and technology students and make it easier for those with green cards to bring their immediate families to the U.S. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Earlier this winter, Ann Coulter brought her usual light touch to the question of the Hispanic vote. The author of Godless: The Church of Liberalism argued in a column that Republicans who support immigration reform in an effort to court Latinos are wasting their time. "It's not clear that amnesty wins any Hispanics," Coulter wrote, "apart from the ones who can't vote (because they're illegal) and their ethnic "˜spokesmen,' whose power increases as the Hispanic population grows." Hispanics gravitate toward Democrats, she insisted, because they believe in more government, and no immigration courtship will seduce them.

Leaving aside the gratuitous jab at Hispanic leaders, other Republicans share that assessment. National Review recently opined, "Republican immigration reformers with an eye to political reality should begin by appreciating that Latinos are a Democratic constituency. They did not vote for Mitt Romney. They did not vote for John McCain." Some Republican members of Congress echo this sentiment. Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania commented on the GOP's scramble to come up with immigration reform. "I hope politics is not at the root of why we're rushing to pass a bill," he told The Morning Call of Allentown. "Anyone who believes that they're going to win over the Latino vote is grossly mistaken."

Coulter and her allies may have a point — up to a point. There is considerable evidence that Hispanics' estrangement from Republicans is not just due to the well-known resistance of Romney and others to support citizenship for those here illegally. On a slew of issues, Hispanics are drawn to the Democratic Party, and it has become harder, albeit not impossible, for Republicans to pry them loose even with the lure of immigration reform.

Begin with the facts. No Republican presidential candidate has won a majority of the Hispanic vote in modern times, and this showing seems to have little relationship to immigration policy. Only 31 percent of Hispanics supported McCain — and he was coauthor with Sen. Edward Kennedy of an immigration-reform measure. (Opposition to immigration reform reduced Romney's share of the Hispanic vote, but only to 27 percent.) Ronald Reagan passed an amnesty-style immigration reform in 1986, and two years later George H.W. Bush could only get 30 percent of the Hispanic vote in the election.

It's true that George W. Bush racked up 35 percent of the Hispanic vote against Al Gore in 2000 and 40 percent against John Kerry in 2004 — not majorities but better than average. Circumstances have grown harder for any Republican looking to replicate the Texan's success, however. First, some Hispanic groups are fleeing the GOP. Cuban-Americans, for instance, once drawn to the Republican Party because of its tough-on-communism image, are now more or less split, as memories of identity-forging events like the Bay of Pigs recede. Moreover, Hispanics, who are a younger population than the rest of the nation, are voting like other young voters, i.e., Democratic. And this Democratic Party identification may only grow. A February report from the Gallup Organization concluded that older Hispanics are also moving left: "If the political preferences of their middle-aged and older counterparts are any guide, it appears that young Hispanic adults will remain lopsidedly Democratic throughout their lives." George W. Bush would have a much tougher time with today's Hispanic electorate than he did back in 2004.

A path to citizenship would further swell the growing numbers of Hispanics on the voting rolls. Can Republicans really garner a majority of this new tranche of likely Democrats? Can they convert those who are now voting Democratic? The answer is yes, but only if you believe that Hispanics are itching to be Republican but for the party's stand on immigration. As columnist Charles Krauthammer puts it, Hispanics "should be a natural Republican constituency — striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented, and socially conservative (on abortion, for example); the principal reason they go Democratic is the issue of illegal immigrants."

The data suggest otherwise. First, Hispanics are more socially liberal than might be imagined. The Pew Research Center notes, "Latinos have often been characterized as more socially conservative than most Americans. On some issues, such as abortion, that's true. But on others, such as acceptance of homosexuality, it is not. When it comes to their own assessments of their political views, Latinos, more so than the general public, say their views are liberal." It's telling that when asked if they backed President Obama's position that "health insurance organizations should be required to cover contraception," 68 percent of Hispanics said yes; only 11 percent said no.

But it's on the question of big government that Hispanics stand most solidly with Democrats. The 2011 Pew Hispanic Center survey asked Latinos whether they would "pay higher taxes to support a larger government or pay lower taxes and have a smaller government"? Hispanics backed higher taxes and more government by 75 percent to 19 percent. For the population as a whole, 48 percent favored smaller government to 41 percent wanting big government. Even Obama's top political adviser, David Plouffe, seems to share the Coulter hypothesis: "The bigger problem [Republicans have] got with Latinos isn't immigration," Plouffe told Time. "It's their economic policies and health care. The group that supported the president's health care bill the most — Latinos."

The coup de grace comes when Hispanics are asked to cite their top priority. Only 12 percent said immigration; half chose the economy and jobs — where they stand with Democrats. That makes the incendiary Coulter more right than wrong, albeit the way a broken clock is famously right twice a day.

This article appeared in the Saturday, March 16, 2013, edition of National Journal with the headline, "Bad Romance."