One of the more curious developments in American politics over the last two decades is the political malpractice of Republicans in dealing with Hispanic-Americans. Indeed, it now appears that the 2012 election may well be determined by the share of the Latino vote that Governor Mitt Romney is able to keep from falling into President Barack Obama’s column.
According to the Investor’s Business Daily tracking poll, Hispanics prefer Barack Obama by a greater than 2:1 margin (61% to 29% on October 25). Hispanic-Americans have tilted toward the Democrats for decades, so it is hard to blame the Republican Party’s current predicament on just the political tactics of this year’s campaign.
But unlike the African-American vote since the 1960s, which has remained rock solid Democratic, history indicates that on occasion the GOP has competed for and won a significant share of the Latino vote. Hispanics tend to be family oriented and somewhat entrepreneurial, which should make them potential Republicans.
But deliberate, conscious decisions by Republican leaders focused on the short run gains from immigrant bashing have done severe damage to the long term health of their party. Attacks on immigrants have caused Hispanics to desert the GOP in droves, particularly in the two most recent presidential elections. And, because the Latino population is relatively youthful, if this concern is not dealt with, it may become even more acute for the Republican Party in the years ahead. Among Millennials, America’s youngest adult generation, about one in five is Latino as compared with about one in ten among Baby Boomers and one in twenty among seniors. Among the even younger Pluralist generation (children 10 years old and younger) between a quarter and 30% are Hispanic. Between these two up-and-coming generations, it’s likely that Hispanics will represent nearly 30% of the nation’s population within the next few decades. This suggests that the Republican Party has little hope of winning national elections in the future unless it reverses its current policies to bring them more in alignment with the attitudes and beliefs of this key voter group.
Some have estimated that Ronald Reagan won 37% of the Hispanic vote in his successful 1984 re-election campaign. Since then the presence of Hispanic voters in the electorate has grown by 400%, but the Republican share of their votes has risen above the level at which Latinos supported Reagan only once. That occurred in 2004 when Karl Rove’s strategic focus on Latinos enabled President George W. Bush’s re-election effort to win upwards of 40% of the Hispanic vote. In every other presidential election since 1984, Republicans have struggled to win the votes of even one out of three Hispanics.
Recent data from Pew Research demonstrates that the Hispanic rejection of the GOP was not pre-ordained. Their recent survey showed 70% of Hispanics now identify themselves as Democrats, but that this percentage falls to just 52% among Evangelical Hispanics, a fast growing group whose cultural attitudes are more conservative than those of the overall Hispanic population. In 2004, President Bush actually won a majority of the Hispanic Protestant vote even as his support among Catholic Hispanics failed to improve from his showing in 2000.
Catholic Hispanics, who comprise about 60% of all Latinos, are more likely to vote based on perceived loyalties to their social-economic class than their attitudes on social issues. Bertha Gallegos, who is Catholic, pro-life and the Vice President of the Colorado Society of Hispanic Genealogy, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that researches the state’s Latino history, typifies the attitude among members of her faith toward the Republican Party. “I still don’t get how Hispanics can be Republicans. The only time they’re nice to us is when they want our vote. Republicans work to make the rich richer. They don’t care about the poor.”
Since the virulently anti-immigrant campaign in favor of Proposition 187 in California that attempted to bar immigrant access to basic social services the Republicans have continued to play exactly the wrong tune for Hispanics. In this year’s Republican primary, there was much emphasis on removing undocumented immigrants from American soil through self-deportation or other more draconian means, Republicans have allowed economic resentment and cultural fears to get in the way of positive voter outreach to America’s fastest growing minority population. After all, many Latino legal residents and citizens also have relatives and friends who are undocumented.
Yet studies as far back as the 2000 presidential election have shown that when properly engaged, Hispanics have an open mind on which party deserves their support. Latinos in that election were statistically more likely to support Bush over Gore if they were contacted by Latino rather than Anglo Republicans. Clearly the election in 2010 of Latino Republican governors, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, suggests that the community remains open to such appeals in the future.
Before such efforts can be successful however, Republicans will have to reverse course on their attitudes toward comprehensive immigration reform, a cause which traces its historical lineage to Ronald Reagan and which was a key part of Karl Rove’s re-election strategy for George W. Bush. Only when the Republican Party’s message changes will their messengers deserve and be able to gain a respectful hearing from America’s Hispanics.
Note: This essay is the first in a new series that I will be contrubuting to NDN. The essays will examine important and interesting data from available public surveys and surveys commissioned by NDN and its affiliates. Themes and analysis will include attitudes toward race and ethnicity, the economy, foreign affairs and the Millennial Generation, but will not be limited to those topics.
In a recent posting on his fivethirtyeight.com Web site, Nate Silver raised the possibility that the Republican Party could more effectively compete in the 2012 and 2016 elections by turning its back on Hispanics and attempting to maximize the support of white voters in enough 2008 Midwestern and Southern blue states to flip them red. This would involve positioning the GOP as the non-Latino party by "pursuing an anti-immigrant, anti-NAFTA, 'American First' sort of platform.'" The Republican Party rode similar exclusionary strategies to dominance of U.S. politics during most of the past four decades.
But America has entered a new era. Propelled by the election of its first African-American president, an increasingly non-white and more heavily Latino population, and the emergence of a new, significantly more tolerant generation, the Millennials, America is not the same country, demographically and attitudinally, that it was in the 1960s or even the 1990s. These changes have altered the electoral environment and lessened the usefulness of divisive strategies that were once effective, but may no longer be so.
Superficially, a non-Latino strategy might seem more plausible than anything else the GOP has attempted since the election of Barack Obama. After offering significant support to George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, Hispanics have recently become a solidly Democratic group. Republicans may have little to lose in not courting them in the next election or two. Nationally, Hispanics voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by more than 2:1 (67% vs. 31%). They supported Democratic House candidates last year by an even greater margin (68% vs. 29%). Pew surveys indicate that four times as many Hispanics identify as Democrats than Republicans (62% vs. 15%).
Adopting a non-Hispanic strategy would certainly be compatible with strategies the GOP has been utilizing for decades. From the "Southern strategy" of Richard Nixon and Kevin Phillips in the late 1960s, through the "wedge issues" used by Lee Atwater in the 1980s, to Karl Rove's "base politics" in this decade, the Republicans effectively took advantage of white middle and working class fears of the "other" -- African-Americans, gays, feminists -- who could be positioned as being outside the American mainstream. Applying this approach to Latinos would only be doing what came naturally for the GOP during the past 40 years.
But, while ethnically exclusionary strategies may offer the possibility of short-term relief, they do little to resolve the deep difficulties now facing the Republican Party. The ethnic composition of the United States is far different now than it was in the 1960s when the GOP began to separate white southerners (and like-minded white working class voters in other regions) from their long attachment to the Democratic Party. Four decades ago, 90 percent of Americans were white, and virtually all of the remainder were African-American. Hispanics were a negligible factor within the population and the electorate. Since then, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in America has fallen to two-thirds. Hispanics now comprise about 15 percent of the population and just under 10 percent of the electorate. Moreover, Hispanics are a relatively young demographic. Even if no additional Latinos migrate to the United States, their importance will continue to increase as older whites pass from the scene.
It is this rise in the Hispanic population that prompted Silver to offer his suggested non-Latino strategy to the Republicans in the first place. But Silver's plan, which he facetiously calls "Operation Gringo," would require the GOP to pull off a rare political balancing act or "thread the needle" to use his term. In order to compensate for expected losses in the increasingly Latino Southwestern states of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and, without John McCain on their ticket, Arizona, Republicans would have to win states like Pennsylvania and Michigan that they have not carried in decades. They would have to do this while not, at the same time, losing Florida and possibly Texas with their own large Hispanic electorates.
Moreover, while it is true that Hispanics are not distributed evenly across the country, Silver concedes "there are Hispanics everywhere now." Latinos were decisive in Obama's wins in closely divided "gringo territories" such as Indiana, North Carolina, and Nebraska's second congressional district and the growth rate of Hispanics is greatest in "nontraditional" areas like the South and Prairie states. This means that "America first" campaigning may ultimately have the effect of hurting Republicans even in some of the "white" states where it was intended to help.
However, the biggest barrier in running against Hispanics is that American attitudes on ethnicity have changed significantly over the past four decades. A new Pew survey indicates that Americans have become less hostile toward immigrants and more positive about policies designed to incorporate immigrants, even undocumented immigrants, into American society.
The number favoring a policy that would allow illegal immigrants (Pew's term) currently in the country to gain citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs has increased from 58 percent to 63 percent since 2007. While 73 percent do agree that America should restrict and control people coming to live in here more than we do now, that number is down from 80 percent in 2002 and 82 percent in 1994. Finally, support for free trade agreements like NAFTA has risen from 34 percent in 2003 and 40 percent in 2007 to 44 percent now.
The Pew findings are confirmed by the findings of a survey recently released by Pete Brodnitz of the Benenson Strategy Group. That study indicated that, across party lines, virtually all Americans (86%) favor the passage by Congress of comprehensive immigration reform when they are given full details of that plan.
Leading the way in these increasingly tolerant attitudes is the Millennial Generation (Americans born 1982-2003). Only a third of Millennials (35% vs. 55% for older generations) believe that the growing number of immigrants threatens traditional American values. Just 58 percent of Millennials (compared with 77% of older generations) agrees that the United States should increase restrictions on those coming to live in America. A large majority of Millennials (71% in contrast to 62% of older Americans) favors a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And, 61-percent of Millennials favor free trade agreements such as NAFTA in contrast to just 40 percent of older generations.
To date America has only seen the tip of the Millennial iceberg. In 2008, just 41 percent of them were eligible to vote and they comprised only 17 percent of the electorate. By 2012, more than 60 percent of Millennials will be of voting age and they will be a quarter of the electorate. In 2020, when the youngest Millennials will be able to vote, they will make up more than a third of the electorate. Over the next decade, this will make the ethnically tolerant attitudes of the Millennial Generation the rule rather than the exception in American politics.
At this early point in the Millennial era, Republicans remain most open to the intolerance and immigrant bashing of ethnically exclusionary strategies. Pew indicates the number of Democrats and independents who favor a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is up 11 points and 3 points respectively since 2007. By contrast, the number of Republicans who favor that policy is down by six points. In the end, a non-Hispanic approach by Republicans would amount to a continuation of Karl Rove's base strategy. As the Republican base continues to diminish in the Millennial Era, that strategy will be a recipe for disaster for the GOP, certainly in the long term, and very likely in the short run as well.
Kagro X over at Daily Kos has a good backgrounder on the legal troubles ahead for Mr. Rove.
Somehow the concept of "contempt" feels like a fitting one for the grandwizard behind one of the worst governments in American history, one that did so little for every day people and our national interest.
I don't think this is where his legal troubles will end.
Makeovers or realignments occur about every four decades in American politics, resulting in forty years of partisan advantage for the party that catches the next wave of generational and technological change. For the other party, it means spending forty years in the minority. Whether a party prospers or loses ground at the time of a realignment depends, in large part, on whether it is willing to embrace a new coalition of voters that is aligned with the larger changes taking place in society or whether it remains locked in the divisions and debates of the past.
In 1896, the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan looked back to an agrarian America and to Jefferson's and Jackson's "yeoman farmer", leaving it to Republicans William McKinley and Mark Hanna, the Carl Rove of his era, to appeal to an emerging urban America. The result was GOP dominance of U.S. politics for the next forty years.
The Democrats got it right in 1932. That year, spurred by the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt built a coalition based on the economic egalitarianism of the GI Generation, many of whom were blue-collar workers and the children and grandchildren of the last great wave of European immigrants to the United States.
But as late as 1968, many Democrats still wanted to rely on the New Deal coalition even as a young idealist generation, Baby Boomers, attempted to get the party to focus on a different set of concerns including civil rights, women's rights, and opposition to the Vietnam war. The resulting divisions presented an opportunity that the Republicans have exploited ever since.
Now, forty years later, American politics is undergoing another period of political and generational change just as it did in 1896, 1932, and 1968. If the Democratic Party has the courage to embrace a new generation of young voters and the group-oriented values it favors, it can once again recapture the political advantage for the next four decades.
Unfortunately, most of the advice the party is getting on what constitutes a winning coalition in 2008, is being provided by pundits and candidates who seem locked in the politics and divisions of the past. Some tell the party to focus on the "white working class," or "hardworking white people." On the other hand, a recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that the focus should be on "senior citizens," virtually all of whom vote and who, together, comprise about 20-percent of the electorate. But these approaches to coalition building neither recognize the major demographic changes continuing to take place in America nor the factors that lead to political makeovers or realignments.
Throughout history, realignments have been produced by the political coming-of-age of a large, dynamic generation and its use of a new communication technology that mobilizes the opinions and votes of that generation. Today's realignment stems from the emergence of the Millennial Generation (Americans born 1982-2003) and its use of Internet based social networking technologies.
The Millennial Generation is the largest in American history. There are over 90 million Millennials, about four in ten of whom are of voting age, making them just as powerful a force in the 2008 election as the much more frequently touted senior citizen cohort.
The Millennial Generation is also the most diverse in our history. Four in ten are non-white and about 20-percent are the children of at least one immigrant parent. Reflecting their gender-neutral behavior, a majority of college undergraduates are women, for the first time in U.S. history. Solid majorities of Millennials are tolerant on social and racial issues, favorable to governmental intervention and egalitarian policies in the economy, and an activist, but multilateral, approach in foreign affairs. With few exceptions, Millennials have overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in this year's presidential primaries and caucuses.
At the same time, changes in America's economy and the composition of its population serve to continue the half-century long trend, noted recently by Alan Abramowitz in the Rasmussen Report, of the diminishing contribution of "white working class voters" to the American workforce overall and to the Democratic electorate specifically:
"In the 1950s, manual workers made up 47 percent of the white electorate in the United States while sales and clerical workers made up 21 percent and professional and managerial workers made up 32 percent. By the first decade of the 21st century, however, manual workers made up only 24 percent of the white electorate, while sales and clerical workers made up 33 percent and professional and managerial workers made up 43 percent. Since the 1960s, however, Democratic identification among both white manual workers and white sales and clerical workers has declined sharply while Democratic identification among white professional and managerial workers has risen. Today, white professional and managerial workers are actually more likely to identify with the Democratic Party than either white manual workers or white clerical and sales workers."
As Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel wrote recently, the Democratic Party is rapidly becoming a party of "gentry liberals", minorities and youth with little resemblance to the working class-based party coalition assembled by FDR almost eighty years ago.
This shift in America's economic dynamics and demographics, coupled with the generational and technological changes the country is experiencing, produces an historic opportunity for the Democratic Party in 2008. In a March 2008 Pew Survey, Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by a greater than 2:1 margin. Millennials are the first generation in more than forty years in which a larger number say they are liberal rather than conservative. In contrast to older generations that are sharply divided by sex and race in their ideology and party identification Millennials are united in their political leanings, a fact that serves to enhance the potential decisiveness of this powerful new generation.
All of this gives the Democrats a clear leg-up in the Millennial makeover that's under way. Whether the Democratic Party takes advantage of this historical opportunity largely depends on the choices it makes in building its electoral coalition. Will it look backward, as it did to its detriment in 1896, or forward, as it did in 1932, to its benefit? The consequences of that choice will shape the fate of the party and the nation, not just in 2008, but also for the coming four decades.