Today, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), joined by a bi-partisan group of seven other Senators, announced the framework of a deal on immigration reform. The details are sketchy, but the deal will provide a foundation for coming talks on the issue. The GOP is eager to cut a deal on immigration, believing its past positions have hurt the party in the immigrant community and threaten to make it, politically, a permanent minority party. Before the party overhauls its positions and potentially alienate its base voters, it ought to try something it hasn’t yet done. The party should reach out and talk to immigrant communities.
In 2004, President George Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote. In 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a champion of immigration reform, won just 31% of their vote. Last year, Mitt Romney won 27% of the Hispanic vote. Eight years ago, Hispanics were 8% of the electorate. In 2012, they were 10% of the electorate. If past trends hold, they will comprise 11% of the electorate in 2016. The GOP cannot sustain these margins if it is to win the Presidency again.
Most of the GOP leaders in DC believe the party needs to reverse course on immigration and embrace some kind of “path to citizenship” to reverse these numbers. There is certainly a case to be made for reforming our dysfunctional immigration system. Like most other federal programs, it is confusing, arbitrary and, at times, capricious. But simply changing its policies won’t help attract Hispanic votes unless the party engages these voters.
It is illustrative to look at how the GOP has fared lately with a different, but fast growing, immigrant group-Asians. The issue of illegal immigration is far less relevant in the Asian immigrant community as it is in the Hispanic community. Yet, over the past three Presidential elections, the GOP’s share of the Asian vote has declined just as fast as its Hispanic vote.
In 2004, President Bush won 44% of the Asian vote, when they comprised just 2% of the electorate. In 2008, McCain won 35% of the Asian vote. Last year, Mitt Romney won just 26% of their vote and they comprised almost 4% of the electorate. Romney actually did worse among Asian voters than he did among Hispanics.
The party clearly faces a deeper problem with immigrant communities than specific provisions of immigration policy.
“Policy is important, but what’s more important is engagement and that’s where we’ve failed,” says Jason Roe, a veteran GOP strategist. “We aren’t in the communities, we aren’t courting the communities, and we aren’t spending money in their media. There is a perception that Republicans are rich, white, racists – a message pushed by the Left – but taking hold because we aren’t there to counter it.”
The Obama campaign put significant resources for advertising into media with large immigrant populations. Its messaging was much more critical of Romney and the GOP than anything aired on traditional outlets. Most of these attacks went unanswered for most of the campaign.
One will often hear Republican operatives detail how the party can appeal to particular minority communities based on some basket of issues. The positions of Hispanics on “family values,” for example is closer to the GOP than Democrats. But, the GOP hasn’t in anything close to a comprehensive way taken any of these messages into these communities. Party strategists, rather, have operated under the assumption that its messages on these issues would simply filter through to these voters through the party’s broad messaging.
The party needs to seriously rethink this approach. Roe’s firm, Revolvis, has been specifically targeting Hispanic voters for the past few years. This outreach, though, needs to be driven by every apparatus the party has. It can no longer just hope that its broad messaging gets into these communities.
In 2000, white voters made up 81% of the electorate. Last year, white voters were just 72% of the electorate. Based on trends of the last decade, they will probably comprise just 69-70% of the electorate in 2016.
The GOP could presumably adopt every position favored by immigrant communities. But, it won’t make a difference electorally if they aren’t talking to them.