Why Did Republicans Give Up on Hispanics?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 11 2014 6:01 PM

Why Did Republicans Give Up on Hispanics?

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Remember these guys and that bill they put together on immigration? House conservatives sure don't.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

It has been more than a year since the Senate passed a bill to overhaul immigration. Hopes that the House might take it up after the primaries but before the August recess were quashed last night with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat. Even before then, the optimistic should have known it wasn’t going to happen: Cantor’s memo last Friday on what legislation the House would consider in June pointedly left out any mention of immigration.

For a time, after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, there was a belief that Republicans needed to mend fences with Hispanic voters. Romney carried just 27 percent of Hispanics in 2012 to Obama’s 71 percent. (Saying he favored self-deportation certainly didn’t help.) But today, a good number of Republicans don’t think they need the Hispanic vote, or at least that they shouldn’t be bothered with it until they shore up easier-to-get white voters who didn’t turn out in 2012. Sure, there has been much hand-wringing and report-circulating about why Hispanic voters skew so heavily Democratic. But a party that’s serious about capturing those votes doesn’t pussyfoot around immigration reform when overwhelming numbers of Hispanics (some of whom would swing Republican if immigration reform were tackled) say it is a key voting issue.

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So why do so many on the right think they don’t need Hispanic votes?

Some have found the “demographics are destiny” argument unconvincing. On a broad level, though the country is becoming more diverse, that diversity doesn’t translate into voting. It is a question both of eligibility and engagement: According to William Frey of the Brookings Institution, Hispanics will make up only 12 percent of eligible voters in 2016, while white voters will still represent 69 percent. By 2028, it will be 18 percent and 61 percent, respectively, but that is a long way off. The demographic differences might matter more in a presidential election when turnout is higher, but during midterm years, Hispanic voter participation has never topped 30-some percent.

Added to this is the effect of gerrymandering. The parlor game of making districts into shapes that belong on a Rorschach test to guarantee safe seats means Republican candidates often have few Hispanics they need to bother to please. So if you are say, David Brat, with only the objective of winning this year’s nomination for Virginia’s 7th District, the pragmatic approach is to run on short-term appeal to a white, activist, and generally older electorate that doesn’t like, or doesn’t care about, immigration.

Those who operate on longer time horizons think parties can’t necessarily build long-term coalitions off of demographics, anyway. Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics discussed this with Tom Esdall in a column for the New York Times last year: “You can’t establish long-lasting majority coalitions in America. Part of this is because parties adapt,” he writes. “The simple truth is that ‘coalitions of everyone’ inevitably fall apart, quickly.” Trende has also argued that it was the 6.1 million white Americans who didn’t bother voting for Mitt Romney that Republicans should have been expending their energy on. Though this would not have won Romney the election, the notion that targeting these voters in the future might do the trick has resonated with some Republicans.

More recently, sociology may have given the “white strategy” a boost. In last month’s issue of The Atlantic, Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute presented findings on the insidious concerns white Americans have about a country where they are a minority. Democrats are bothered as much as Republicans by the idea. (Democrats are bothered slightly more so, in fact, when primed to answer indirectly rather than asked outright). It is easier in politics, as conservatives know, to capitalize on such fears than to assuage them. When looked at this way, immigration reform might seem like a pyrrhic victory.

There are plenty who think this is a terribly wrong-headed strategy that will doom the party. But that doesn’t matter if they can’t win an election. 

Boer Deng is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter

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