It is not often that groups and pundits as diverse as Sean Hannity, the National Council of La Raza, Charles Krauthammer, the Service Employees International Union and the New York Times agree on something. But they all argue that the 70-percent Democratic preference of Latino voters was decisive to President Barack Obama’s victory and that the Republican Party must endorse comprehensive immigration reform to avoid future drubbings. Even some in the Republican leadership have joined the call.
But is it a good idea for the Republicans? Will crafting an earned legalization plan translate into more votes? Not really.
First, the basic premise is bogus. While lopsided, the Hispanic vote did not determine the election. Even if the Latino vote had split equally between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney (a wildly optimistic assumption from a Republican perspective), Romney would have won only four additional states (Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico). The 49 additional electoral votes would not have affected the final outcome. Romney lost because he lost in almost all constituencies, not just because he lost the Hispanic vote.
History shows that easing immigration rules doesn’t necessarily result in Republican gains. Quite the opposite, actually. For example, in 1984, Ronald Reagan won 37 percent of the Hispanic vote. Two years later, he signed the first amnesty, giving legal status to almost 3 million illegal immigrants. Did this help Republicans in the next presidential election? Nope. Their share dropped to 30 percent
In 1990, George H. W. Bush signed legislation vastly increasing legal immigration, only to see his share drop to 25 percent (less than Romney) in the next election.
In 2008, presidential hopeful John McCain expected to improve on George W. Bush’s 40 percent. After all, the previous year, he had crossed the proverbial aisle and partnered with Ted Kennedy in authoring a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have granted legal residence to more than 11 million illegal immigrants. The result? Only 31 percent of Hispanics voted for him, a drop of 9 percent.
So what gives? Perhaps the pundits and ethnic advocates are wrong, that what they claim the Latino voter wants (immigration reform with legalization) is not what the Latino voter actually wants. For example, the Pew Hispanic Center reported this fall that only one-third of Hispanic voters viewed immigration as “very important.” Issues they considered more important: education, jobs and the economy, health care and the deficit. Just like the rest of us. And, according to economist Paul Krugman, the most financially insecure are the most likely to vote Democratic.
So, the message is clear. If Republicans want to win a greater share of the growing Hispanic demographic, they will need to address the issues Hispanics really value: more good paying jobs, an improved educational system, affordable healthcare for all and deficit reduction. History shows that Republicans are rarely rewarded for earned legalization programs. And economics suggest that far more of any newly enfranchised Hispanics will vote Democratic rather than Republican. From the Republican perspective, the political risks of a quick-fix legalization scheme outweigh the benefits.
And this raises a larger issue. If the last few years have taught us anything, it has taught us that we have had too much partisan gamesmanship in Washington and Augusta. The issues are too important to be decided by what benefits a particular party. Policy issues should be weighed by their merits and whether they advance our collective goals, not whether they score one for the party. For example, a decision on any proposed immigration bill should depend on an examination of the bill’s effect upon a variety of constituencies, not just the illegal immigrants, but also legal immigrants, low-skilled native born workers and taxpayers. It’s much bigger than “let’s pay them back for delivering the election.”
We deserve more enlightened leadership from our elected officials. But we won’t get it until we demand it.
Jonette Christian, of Holden, is a founder of Mainers for Sensible Immigration Policy.