Republicans must work harder to win over Latinos

2013-04-24 12:16
Immigration advocates gather outside the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Senate Hart Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington as they wait to attend the committee's hearing on comprehensive immigration reform legislation. (File, AP)

Immigration advocates gather outside the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Senate Hart Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington as they wait to attend the committee's hearing on comprehensive immigration reform legislation. (File, AP)

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Chicago - Immigration reform is only one of many issues that Republicans need to grapple with, in order to win over Latino voters.
In one of the most expected phenomena of 2013, the move towards immigration reform in the USA is gaining steam. Fresh off a hammering at the polls in November 2012, Republican leadership decided that the way to win Latino votes – by quite some distance the fastest growing demographic in the USA – was to overhaul the USA's pretty inept immigration system and deal with the estimated 12-million illegal immigrants living inside the USA. The thinking here was that the votes of Latinos, which were decisive in some states in the 2012 election, would come swimming towards the GOP if immigration became a party priority.
This is not a totally unfounded belief – although it is flawed – as the previous Republican president, George W Bush, won 44% of Latino votes in his 2004 re-election, by quite some margin the most successful Republican among Latinos in recent elections. However, Bush Junior was a huge proponent of immigration reform in that election cycle.

And that’s the last time it happened. As Bush was announcing his reform proposals, his party went the other direction completely – in other words, while Bush may have been moving in the correct direction for the ever expanding Latino voting demographic, the Republican Party was most certainly not. And it was the rift within in Republican Party that eventually killed off any hopes of passing immigration legislation (this same danger remains this time around – the volume control is yet to be turned up properly though).

Throughout the process, the bill was modified in both chambers of the legislature – both with Republican majorities, although the Senate fell to Democrats in 2006, who were then filibustered when they tried to proceed with the legislation – to make it more palatable to those majorities, which ended up turning away Democrat support too, as well as that of civil society. In a nutshell, Republicans came out of that looking bad. In 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain lost Latinos significantly – the party’s voters during the primary forced him to go back on his own immigration overhaul bill he had recently pushed for in the Senate.

Comprehensive immigration reform

And into the 2012 election, Republicans shot themselves in the foot – repeatedly. Candidate Rick Perry, who is also the governor of Texas and is hardly any sort of liberal, was pilloried by other candidates for offering in-state education assistance to the children of illegal immigrants. Mitt Romney, who went on to win the nomination, said that he believed in "self-deportation", an idea that originally began as a joke, and would have meant making immigrants as miserable as possible until they decided to return to wherever they had escaped from.
Immigration reform isn’t determinative of how every Latino will vote, as I will explain later, but it is an easy way to lose people when you make it quite clear you want to see a fair portion of them gone.
Republican leadership decided the solution to stop haemorrhaging the votes of Latinos is to encourage what has become known as "comprehensive immigration reform", which would ideally offer a pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants, instead of repeatedly threatening to hoof them out, or drive them out through ill-treatment. The party's own "autopsy" after the previous election even said, "we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform". Because most of the millions of illegal immigrants happen to be of Latino ancestry, it is logical to assume that this is election priority numero uno. Of course – don’t people of the same marginalised group always vote for each others’ interests? Sadly the world is not that predictable. 
Immigration reform is not going to help the Republicans all that much if it is all the party decides to change.
Don’t forget, there will be a massive backlash against it within the party – already there are calls to slow down immigration reform’s momentum due to the bombing attacks in Boston last week. An absurd reason indeed, but opponents will capitalise on what they can find. There will be more.

Wrong direction

Also, immigration is not the be-all and end-all of everything Latino voters think about. In 2012 polling company Pew showed results that listed immigration as the fifth largest electoral concern for Latino voters, behind education, jobs and the economy, healthcare and the federal budget deficit.

 Immigration only beat taxation by one percentage point. A Washington Post-Kaiser Foundation poll from mid-2012 showed Latino voters prefer a larger government with more services to a small one with limited services by 55% to 40%. By a margin of 52% to 44%, Latino voters also said the federal government "should do everything possible to improve the living standard of all Americans". These are completely antithetical to the Republican Party. As a polled group, Latinos believe religious groups of all kinds should butt out of politics (by 55% to 42%), and that "we should be more tolerant of people who choose to live according to their own moral standards even if we think they are wrong" (75% to 23%).
To make things worse for Republicans – their hobby-horses are running in the wrong direction: Latinos collectively believe in the right to abortion 55% to 42%, and support gay marriage 53% to 42%. They also believe in the Obama stance of raising taxes on the rich 65% to 33%.
All is not lost however – business principles amongst Latino voters seem to overlap with Republicans. Pluralities of voters within the poll claim cutting taxes (business and personal) and budget cuts would stimulate job growth. By a margin of 51% to 48% the group does not believe in cutting military spending.
Alarmingly for the GOP, there is one aspect of the Obama presidency that the party stands heinously against – Obamacare – that Latinos approve of by a two-to-one margin, according to a poll by Fox News Latino from September 2012.

Racial slurs

Immigration also isn’t the same question for all Latinos, even those that prioritise the issue – this is a major fallacy in the common wisdom that permeates current discourse. In Florida, for example, it may seem like one would need to be pro-immigration reform to haul the state out of Democrat hands (into which it fell narrowly during the last two presidential elections).

However, Florida’s Latino community contains large groups of people who are Cuban and Cuban-American, and from Puerto Rico. Cubans fleeing the Communist regime at home have their own immigration policy, and Puerto Ricans are American citizens. These kinds of niceties need to be taken into account by a party that wishes to appeal to this general demographic. A distant look towards a large group of brown people, and a few adverts in Spanish, does not millions of votes win.
One last thing. In order to win the votes of a group of people your senior members should stop using racial slurs to describe them. It was only a few weeks ago that Representative Don Young of Alaska said, "We used to hire 50 or 60 wetbacks and — to pick tomatoes," during a radio interview. "Wetback" is a derogatory reference to illegal immigrants.
So go all in for immigration reform, but don’t expect floods of Latino votes to immediately follow it. There’s a lot more work to be done.

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