Now What? Immigration Edition

By Mark Krikorian on November 8, 2012

National Review Online, Novmber 8, 2012

Blaming Tuesday’s defeat solely on Mitt Romney would be a mistake. It’s true that he wasn’t a perfect candidate, but there’s no such thing as a perfect candidate. It’s true, too, that he’s proven flexible as to his policy positions; but the (Groucho) Marxian line that “if you don’t like my principles, I have others” is widely applicable to politicians. The question for conservatives and Republicans is what, if any, adjustments might be needed to the principles we ask aspiring politicians to pretend to hold.

The standard GOP lines on foreign policy, spending, the economy, and abortion were undoubtedly important in Tuesday’s defeat in a way that immigration wasn’t, but my bailiwick is immigration. This is also the area where the GOP establishment leaps at any opportunity to slip its leash, having only grudgingly submitted to the views of its own voters. Even before the results were in, the establishment’s argument was that this defeat is proof that the Republican party has to embrace amnesty and unlimited immigration (“comprehensive immigration reform”) to get enough of the Hispanic vote to remain electorally viable. Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick have a book coming out on this very topic in March, presumably having figured that whatever the electoral outcome, they’d point to it as an excuse to push for open borders. The temptation for the Republican elite to go in this direction will be great, as it provides a convenient way of avoiding reconsideration of other parts of the GOP message more in need of a tune-up.

On the surface it sounds plausible enough. Obama got 71 percent of the Hispanic vote on Tuesday against Romney’s strong pro-enforcement (but also pro–mass immigration) stand, up from his 67 percent against “Amnesty John” McCain (though the margin of error is large enough that the difference may not even be statistically significant). This is a strong showing for Obama, obviously, but it’s still a small shift in a relatively small part of the electorate — and not a shift obviously due to immigration.

Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban-Americans, and so on are a heterogeneous group concerned with the same kinds of issues as are other Americans, with immigration pretty far down the list. However, as a group they are poorer than average, pay less in taxes, use more in government services, benefit from affirmative action, and are less likely to have health insurance — so the Democrats’ message of big government and racial quotas is going to resonate with them, as it always has. (Remember, Jimmy Carter got 76 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 1980 Reagan landslide, before immigration was much of a political issue.) Even Hispanic Republicans are to the left of white Democrats, so that embracing the Bush/McCain/Kennedy approach to immigration just isn’t going to win over lots of Hispanic voters, and will lose a much larger number of votes from whites. As the Manhattan Institute’s Ted Frank has written:

Hispanics are voting on economic issues, not on immigration, and that isn’t going to shift [them] to Republican ideals any time soon. Any political gains the Republicans can make by yielding on immigration are going to be more than offset by the adverse effect on the economy for the lower middle class and the increased number of Democratic voters.

But, the open-borders Right will say, Bush got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004! Actually, he got more like 38 to 40 percent, because the national exit-poll results were simply incorrect. But even so, that’s better than Romney (or McCain) got and has become the benchmark figure for the pro-amnesty Right. But even if Romney had gotten a similar share of the Hispanic vote, he still would have lost the election. It might have made a difference in Florida and Nevada, but not in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, or Virginia. There are deep problems with the GOP brand that have nothing to do with immigration.

Here’s how it breaks down. Of the two-party vote (Obama plus Romney), each 1 percentage point is worth 1.172 million votes, and Obama’s margin of victory was about 2.7 million. (These numbers will change as the remaining results trickle in, but the proportions shouldn’t change significantly.) The president got 71 percent of the Hispanic vote to Romney’s 27 percent. If Romney had received 10 percentage points more of the Hispanic vote (37 percent, close to Bush’s 2004 number), he would have received 1.172 million more Hispanic votes and the president would have lost a similar number, for a total shift of 2.34 million (because 10 percentage points of the Hispanic vote is equal to 1 percent of the total electorate) — and Obama would still have won the popular vote.

Now let’s look at a different group. The exit polls report that 35 percent of the electorate self-identified as conservative, and that Romney got only 82 percent of them, with 17 percent voting for Obama. (Say that to yourself again slowly: One out of six self-identified conservatives voted for Obama.) If Romney had increased his share of the conservative vote by just 5 percentage points, to 87 percent, he would have picked up 2.05 million more votes, and the president would have lost a similar number, allowing Romney to win the popular vote. (This is because 5 percentage points of the conservative vote equals 1.75 percent of the electorate.)

So Republicans being hectored by the open-borders Right have to ask themselves what’s more likely for a future presidential candidate: getting an additional 10 points of the Hispanic vote or an additional 5 points of the conservative vote? The question answers itself.

This doesn’t mean the GOP can ignore outreach to Hispanic voters. A quarter to a third of them — especially those who are more assimilated, better educated, and middle class — are open to Republican arguments. But even if the fairy-tale number of 44 percent of the Hispanic vote were possible, it still wouldn’t make sense to keep increasing the Democratic share of the electorate through ongoing mass immigration.

What’s more, ongoing mass immigration changes social and economic conditions in ways that make statist arguments more persuasive to native-born voters not even thinking about immigration. For instance, immigrants and their young children accounted for two-thirds of the increase in the uninsured over the last decade. Would arguments for a greater government role in health insurance be as persuasive to as many people without the effects of immigration?

That said, harsh rhetoric on immigration turns people off, not just immigrants but also the native-born. People generally like immigrants, as they should, not just because they’re God’s creatures, but also because their presence suggests that America, whatever her problems, is still attractive enough for foreigners to want to move here.

But there’s a difference between welcoming the lawful immigrants who live among us and continuing the admission of millions more in the future. Contrary to the resurgent immigration expansionists on the right, John O’Sullivan’s observation remains true: The GOP can change its stance on immigration and embrace lower numbers (both legal and illegal), or it can change its stance on everything else.