The Politics of Arizona's Immigration Law

The Politics of Arizona's Immigration Law

By Sean Trende - July 8, 2010

The reaction to the substance of Arizona's immigration law has been predictably divided.  Conservatives claim the law is necessary to clamp down upon a porous border, while liberals claim the law legalizes racial profiling. 

The reaction to the politics of the law, by contrast, has been much more unified among commentators.  Most Democrats and many Republicans have suggested the law will be at least somewhat damaging to the Arizona Republican Party.

California is frequently held up as the template for what could go wrong for the Republicans. The story goes that before 1996, the California Republican Party performed well, holding the governorship and frequently carrying the state in presidential races. 

Then in the mid-1990s, the GOP embraced a series of controversial ballot initiatives that were perceived as being directly aimed at the Hispanic community: Prop 187, which banned illegal immigrants from receiving government services; Prop 209, which banned governmental affirmative action programs; and Prop 227, which required English-only programs in the public schools.  It was during this time that the Republican Party in California supposedly began its decline.

Daily Kos's Markos Moulitsas states this view with typical Kos pith:

The California GOP's embrace of the hateful Prop 187, which would've banned undocumented immigrants from all government services, including public education, continues to cost their party 16 years later. Since the initiative passed in 1994, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only Republican, under bizarre conditions (the recall election), to win a governor, senator, or presidential race in the state. Democrats have dominated the rest of the statewide elected offices, with just a smattering of Republicans occasionally picking up the odd seat.

While Moulistas is not known for his concern about the GOP's electoral prospects, this California analogy is nevertheless worth considering. If it's true, it isn't much of a stretch to conclude that Arizona Republicans now risk becoming a permanent minority in that state as well.

Setting aside completely the debate over whether Arizona's law is good/fair policy, I think that a close examination of the California GOP's experience suggests that the politics of the Arizona law are much more complex than the dominant narrative suggests.  There is little evidence that the California ballot initiatives had any effect on the GOP's performance with any racial or ethnic group, and hence little to suggest that the Arizona GOP will suffer the same fate.

The "Prop 187 killed the California GOP" narrative is first based upon a misconceived view of the Republican Party's historic strength in California. While the Republican Party nominated Californians for President five times between 1960 and 1988, which is certainly a testament to the GOP's strength in the Golden State, the party was in decline well before the mid-1990s.  Consider the following graph:

The Democrats have held a large, steady registration advantage in the state for the better part of a century.  You'll note that the Democrats' registration advantage doesn't expand post-1994 (as we would expect if the mid-decade propositions had a massive negative effect on the GOP). In fact, the ratio of registered Republicans to registered Democrats in 2000 is within two-tenths of a point of where it was in 1994.

This advantage has long manifested in statewide races. While the GOP frequently carried California at the Presidential level in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, the Republicans have not won an outright majority of the State Senate since 1954, and have only won the State Assembly twice since then.  As for statewide races, Moulitsas is correct that the GOP has not performed particularly well since 1994, but it is also true that, since 1954, the Republicans rarely won more than one of the four down ballot spots, save for the GOP landslide years of 1966 and 1994. 

But didn't the mid-90s ballot propositions negatively affect Hispanic vote preferences, further weakening the CA-GOP and making a bad situation worse?   Not on the presidential level, as this table makes clear:

According to the presidential exit polls, the Hispanic vote has been fairly stable in California over the last 20 years.  The only exception was in 2004, when George W. Bush managed to carry one out of three Hispanics. This stability in this demographic is even more surprising when you consider that the national vote in this time period ranged from an 8-point GOP win (1988) to an 8-point Democratic win (1996).

California has moved away from the Republicans at the presidential level in the last 20 years, but it is not really because of shifts in the Hispanic vote. Instead, it's based on two dynamics.  First, the California white vote has moved toward the Democrats. Second, the share of the white vote in California has declined.  In 1988 whites accounted for 82% of California voters.  In 2008, they were just 63% of the electorate.

Moreover, as we can see from the chart below, Prop 187 actually enjoyed a cross-racial voting coalition that even included 30% of Hispanic voters.  Support for Prop 209, which barred affirmative action, was also cross-racial. While we don't have official exit poll results available for Prop 227, there are contemporaneous accounts that state that the CNN/LA Times exit poll suggested that 37% of Latinos supported the English-only initiative, as did a near-majority of blacks. Whites supported these conservative ballot initiatives in all three instances, yet still continued moving toward the Democrats on the presidential level.

So, in California, we see (a) no effect of the ballot initiatives on presidential support for the parties; (b) cross-racial voting coalitions for the initiatives. Both conclusions are contrary to the thrust of the "Prop 187 killed the California GOP" theory.

There are obviously, at the least, serious problems with the most common analogy used to support the narrative that the Arizona GOP has just suffered a self-inflicted, slow-bleeding stomach wound.  But these data relate to the situation in Arizona in three additional ways.

First, there's an assumption underlying much of the Arizona analysis that Hispanics will base their votes on the immigration issue as uniformly as African American voters have historically based their votes with regard to civil rights.  This seems unlikely.  The exit polls suggest that as many as one-in-three Hispanic voters have voted directly contrary to their supposed interests on questions of ethnicity and immigration. 

The second takeaway is on a touchier subject, but it is nevertheless important.  Analysts assume that a Democratic coalition of Asians, African Americans, Hispanics and liberal whites would be a stable governing coalition supporting a liberal/progressive agenda.  But building a political coalition is like pushing on a water balloon: you press in one area, and another area bulges.  Sometimes the whole thing will explode. 

The history of multi-ethnic coalitions is replete with examples of such explosions. Ethnic politics in the Northeast are a classic example:  WASPs were typically Republicans, the Irish were typically Democrats. Italians were often Democrats, but they frequently aligned themselves with the Republican Party because the Irish were the base of the Democrats, and they typically competed with the Irish for government resources.

In the case of California in the 1990s, note that Asians and African Americans supported Prop 187 at substantially higher rates than did Hispanics, and that Asians were more supportive of Prop 209.  Whites were highly supportive of all three major ballot questions.  That's a sign that, on specific issues, these groups see their interests differently.  That can complicate the task of building long-term coalitions. Democrats have managed this ably in California so far, but the big question is: as the racial/ethnic balance further shifts toward Hispanics, what will the other groups do?  African Americans are likely to stay Democratic, but can the Democrats hold such strong support among whites and Asians? And what happens in a state like Arizona, where there are few African Americans, and no major hub of true-blue liberalism like the San Francisco area?

Finally, much of the analysis of the political ramifications of Arizona's law is premised upon the idea that, if present trends continue, the growth of the state's Hispanic population will eventually overwhelm the state's white population. This ignores the fact that Arizona's law could forestall this possibility; indeed it is intended to do just that. Hispanic immigration to this country was already on the decline due to the recession and the collapse in the construction industry.  What if Hispanic migrants perceive Arizona as unwelcoming, and instead choose to move to (already Democratic) states, such as California or New Mexico?  There has already been anecdotal evidence of this happening, and if the trajectory of immigration to Arizona changes, so too will the politics of the state.

Jay Cost and I have long been skeptical of "Permanent [Republican/Democratic] Majority" theories, and the argument we've worked on rebutting here is a classic example of why we are skeptical. These theories are premised upon a static analysis of present trends, extrapolated out over decades. But history is replete with examples of such trends abruptly ceasing, or reversing. In 1928 you would have been laughed at for suggesting that, in 40 years, a Southern Democratic President would end Jim Crow, and blacks would vote 90% Democrat for the 40 succeeding years. In 1960, you would have been ridiculed for suggesting that a Republican would carry white Catholics fifty years later. And in 1992, professors at esteemed Ivy League institutions happily taught from political science journal articles suggesting that the Republicans had a "lock" on the Electoral College. Even the boisterous James Carville would only suggest that they had "picked" the lock, not broken it after 1992.

I'm not saying it is impossible that this ballot initiative will kill the GOP in the Southwest. It certainly is possible. But it is by no means a foregone conclusion, and there are certainly compelling scenarios that suggest otherwise, especially over the long run.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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