The saddest “gaffe” is the one that nobody actually bothers to dispute with facts. Such a misstep was delivered in Washington over the weekend, when Jeb Bush faced an audience at Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference. Rushing through a speech, he decided to skimp on euphemisms.
“Immigrants are more fertile,” said Bush, chuckling at himself as soon the f-word escaped, “and they love families, and they have more intact families, and they build a younger population. The one way that we can rebuild the demographic pyramid is to fix a broken immigration system.”
There wasn’t much of a reaction from the crowd, which was still settling into the hotel ballroom, but the word fertility sounded odd to the media. The gaffe was born. “Where did Jeb Bush take his sex-ed class?” chortled one CNN host. Watching the coverage you would never have guessed that Bush was right. He could have been more specific—the wombs themselves are not supercharged—but new arrivals to the United States give birth at a rate of 87.8 per 1,000 people. The rate for U.S. citizens is 58.9 per 1,000.
The press moved on from Bush, but the three-day conference didn’t drop his subject. Fertility was in the air. Jonathan Last, the Weekly Standard writer who just published a book with the subtitle “America’s Coming Demographic Disaster,” gave a capsule version of his findings to a curious audience. In speeches and panels and hallway chatter, you could hear hard questions about birthrates in America and what sort of births were best for conservatives. The usual answer was any births you got.
“The other side isn’t producing that many young people,” said the radio host Michael Medved, who spoke shortly after Bush. By “the other side,” he meant liberals. “Children are being brought up, disproportionately, by those who are more conservative, those who understand that a baby is not a choice or a burden. A baby is a blessing … what’s going to pay for Social Security if not more children?”
Medved’s theory is popular with conservatives—and statistically sound. As Amanda Marcotte wrote for Slate last year, fertility rates correlate quite well with party preferences. Mitt Romney won every state with birthrates higher than 70 per 1,000. Barack Obama won every state where the rates have fallen below 60. (What’s keeping people so busy in Vermont?)
This stuff is perfect for the Faith and Freedom Coalition and its endless quest to make social conservatives add up to a bigger share of the electorate. Founded by Ralph Reed in 2009, the coalition and its annual conference hang at an unusual place in the right-wing constellation. The group’s electoral oomph is difficult to measure. To save time, the press typically takes for granted that this “Christian Coalition on steroids” (Reed’s term) can pull out evangelical votes. A pre-election profile last year in the New York Times counted off the “17.1 million registered voters” in the Reed database and the “25 million voter guides” to be distributed in “117,000 churches.”
And what sort of people? This was the question at a Friday breakout session on outreach to nonwhite voters. “Last year, for the first time, white deaths exceeded white births,” said Ron Miller, a black Republican politician turned Liberty University administrator. (As he said this, a young white woman gave up the seat behind mine and fled the room, muttering.) “The only reason that there was any uptick in the white population of the United States is because of immigration. And [at] the same time, for the first time, half of the under-5 age group is now composed of racial or ethnic minorities. Some demographic trends tell us by 2050 we will be a majority-minority nation. I know there’s a lot of smoke and heat over this issue, but there are numbers that can’t be refuted.”
They can’t be read statically, either. Today’s immigrant birthrate is not tomorrow’s birthrate. It’s not going to hold fast until 2050. Six months ago, the Pew Research Center showed that immigrant birthrates were actually falling more rapidly than the birthrates of women born in the United States. Overall, sure, immigrant women gave birth at about twice the rate of other women. But from 2007 to 2010, U.S.-born birthrates fell by 5 percent; immigrant births tumbled by 13 percent.
If you take the mathlete’s view of politics and you’re trying to grow a permanent ideological majority, you’d still take those added numbers. You’d want more human beings to work in America, and you’d want them to flock to your party. Anti-immigration hardliners swear that this can’t be done; that’s what Mitt Romney found himself saying after his loss, when he told donors that Obama’s base had been won over with “gifts.” If today’s lower-income Hispanic voter is inclined to vote for the party that gave him Obamacare, why would tomorrow’s low-income Hispanic voter ever vote Republican?
It’s a hard question, and it didn’t get answered in public—at least not at the conference. The going theory for minority outreach was the one offered by Herman Cain, who was for one shining month last year the 2012 GOP presidential front-runner. How did he talk to nonwhite voters, those skeptical people with those enviable birth rates? “The same way you talk to anybody else!” It wasn’t weak minority outreach that sunk the party in 2012. No, blame “the number of conservatives that stayed home because they were not enthusiastic.”
Liberals don’t come off as Pollyannish about demographics. They talk about them with pride—they see a future in which Texas’ growing Hispanic population stays on the team and turns the state into another Florida or Ohio, another piece of competitive turf. Jeb Bush sees the same future and asks Republicans to prepare for it. Other conservatives would rather tamp down that conversation or joke about it.
“I think it’s kinda dangerous territory, touchy territory, to want to debate over one race’s fertility rate over another,” said Sarah Palin, closing out the conference to a mostly full ballroom. “I say this as someone who’s kinda fertile herself.”