DENVER – Republican leaders in Washington, DC are sounding the alarm on the GOP’s weakness among Hispanic voters, with many longtime party loyalists suggesting that conservatives must moderate their opposition and rhetoric on the issue of illegal immigration, or face dim electoral prospects for years to come.
“I fear that the immigration issue is the kind of gateway issue,” former Bush Administration official Condoleezza Rice warned in a recent Politico article. “[If the Republican] immigration message is harsh and unyielding, I don’t think you’re going to get people to listen to you.”
But while Rice and others in the GOP establishment argue that a makeover of GOP immigration policies is key to Republicans wooing a larger share of the growing Latino vote, a new poll released by the Hispanic Leadership Network of Latinos in four states – Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico – paints a more complex picture.
When asked, “How important were each of the following issues [Economy and jobs, Education, Health Care, Federal deficits and debt, Taxes, and Immigration] in deciding which candidates to support for President and Congress?”, ‘Immigration’ ranked dead last among the six with respondents from all four states.
In Colorado, for example, 42 percent of Hispanics said they considered ‘Immigration’ to be an “extremely important” issue — well behind ‘Economy and Jobs’ (71 percent), ‘Education’ (66 percent), ‘Health Care’ (63 percent), ‘Federal deficits and debt’ (52 percent) and ‘Taxes’ (47 percent).
Current and historical data also seem to contradict the often repeated contention that restrictionist Republican attitudes on immigration have eroded Hispanic support for GOP candidates and causes in recent years, or that a more lax Republican position on immigration translates to greater Hispanic support.
Exit polls indicate that the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee John McCain, for example, received just 31 percent of the Hispanic vote despite being a well-known and longtime supporter of amnesty for illegal aliens. McCain’s 31 percent was only slightly more than the 27 percent that Mitt Romney received in November, despite Romney’s arguably tougher – yet hardly draconian – stance on immigration.
“I’ve often said that many Hispanics vote Democrat for the same reason many other people vote Democrat: They heed the siren song of the government security blanket,” said former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration.
Still, many Republican insiders cite Romney and McCain’s dismal showing with Hispanics as evidence that the GOP “brand” is, and will continue to be toxic with Latino voters until party firebrands soften their stand.
Yet many of those same firebrands are quick to note than with the exception of George W. Bush capturing 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, Romney and McCain’s performances with Latinos are on par with those of other GOP presidential candidates dating back to the 1970’s.
Gerald Ford, for example, won just 24 percent of the Latino vote in 1976 to Jimmy Carter’s 75 percent. And Ronald Reagan – who signed the first broad-based illegal alien amnesty into law during his tenure as president – did only nominally better than Ford, earning just 36 and 34 percent of Hispanics respectively in 1980 and 1984. And Reagan’s decision to support amnesty evidently did not result in any residual “bump” in support for his successor George H.W. Bush, who garnered a mere 30 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1988 and an even more anemic 25 percent in 1992.
Bob Dole, the GOP’s 1996 nominee, also fared poorly with Latinos, earning just 21 percent of the Hispanic vote against Bill Clinton. Clinton, on the other hand, received a whopping 72 percent of the Hispanic vote despite signing immigration enforcement legislation into law just weeks before the election that, among other things, barred states from offering special in-state tuition discounts to illegal aliens, and made it illegal for state and local governments to enact so-called “sanctuary” policies.
Even so, many conservatives concede that the GOP’s historical performance with Hispanics isn’t going to be sufficient going forward if the party expects to win statewide elections, particularly in swing states where this fast growing population is increasingly flexing its electoral muscle.
“Republicans have always won around a third of Latinos,” said one influential GOP operative in Colorado. “But how much more of the electorate is Latino in 2012 versus 1976?”
The survey also calls into question the argument long made by some conservatives that Hispanics are, as a voting bloc, generally a socially conservative demographic but for their views on immigration.
“They should be a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example),” conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post last month. “The principal reason they go Democratic is the issue of illegal immigrants.”
However, the poll results tell a different story.
On the question of abortion, 53 percent of Colorado Latinos described themselves as “pro-choice”, compared to just 38 percent who said they were “pro-life.” And when asked to identify which political party “shares my views on social issues like gay marriage and abortion,” respondents chose the Democratic Party over the GOP by a more than 3 to 1 margin – 68 percent to 21.
But social issues aren’t the GOP’s only problem with the Latino bloc. GOP outreach efforts may also be lacking. Most Hispanics say that the Republican Party doesn’t even try to court them. In fact, just 12 percent of Colorado Hispanics say the GOP “makes an effort to win Hispanic voters.”
On the issue of immigration, the survey showed strong support among Hispanics for stricter border enforcement, but also leniency for those illegal aliens already inside the country.
Some 81 percent of Colorado respondents said they supported “Increasing our border security along the Mexican border, to ensure that people who enter the United States do so legally, and to ensure the safety of U.S. residents.”
Yet large majorities in Colorado also favored providing in-state college tuition benefits for the children of illegal immigrants at public colleges and universities (78 percent) and allowing “undocumented immigrants who have been here for years to earn legal status if they pay a fine, have a job, and learn English” (83 percent).
The wide divide between Hispanics and many rank-and-file Republicans on these two high-profile issues may well have hampered the GOP’s ability to gain traction with Colorado Latinos, more than half of whom (53 percent) say they see the Republican Party as “anti-immigrant” (compared to 29 percent who said they viewed the Democratic Party as “anti-immigrant”).
The lopsided margin of support on both the amnesty and in-state tuition questions may be due in part to the intensely personal nature of the issue. Nearly half of Colorado Hispanics, 44 percent, say they personally know someone who is in the country illegally (another 9 percent said they didn’t know or refused to answer).
“Republicans want to be tough and say, ‘Illegals, you’re gone,’” New Mexico’s GOP Governor Susana Martinez told Newsweek earlier this year. “But the answer is a lot more complex than that.”
According to the Hispanic Leadership Network, “These surveys of 400 Hispanic voters in each of four states – Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada – were conducted November 28-December 7, 2012. Respondents were selected randomly from a listed sample of Hispanic registered voters.”