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An Immigration "Bonanza" for Democrats?

An Immigration "Bonanza" for Democrats?

By Sean Trende - April 24, 2013

I usually avoid labeling pieces “must read,” but am making an exception for Harry Enten’s piece on immigration over at the Guardian. Enten responds, correctly, to Politico’s wild assertion that the path to citizenship could put an additional 11 million voters in play for Democrats. Under Politico’s reckoning, if this group had been eligible to vote in the last election – and had exercised that right -- it would have given President Obama another three points on his national margin.

This is a better claim than the even more off-base statement that the immigration reform bill will give Democrats 11 million new votes outright, but it is still flawed. The politics of reform are such that it would probably net Democrats more on the order of 1 million votes directly. It would probably net fewer once indirect effects are taken into account, and would fail to flip any states in the Electoral College.

As Enten points out, not all illegal immigrants in the country are Latino (about 80 percent are) and not necessarily all are itching for citizenship. After the 1986 immigration reform bill, only about 40 percent of those eligible took advantage of the pathway to citizenship offered; a little more than a third of legal Mexican-American immigrants become citizens today.

Among those who do take advantage of the pathway to citizenship, fewer will actually vote. About half of all voting-age Hispanic citizens voted in 2008. There’s good reason to think that rate will be even lower among these newly minted citizens, as voting behavior correlates heavily with socio-economic status, and there’s good reason to think that many in this group will be on the lower tier of the economic ladder. Add in the fact that a decent number of these voters will end up voting Republican, and you’re left with about a half point added to Obama’s margin if the path to citizenship had been in effect in 2012. Not peanuts, but closer to peanuts than to a “bonanza.”

This raises the further question: What about the Electoral College? Doesn’t this at least help the Democrats flip states like Texas and Arizona?

We can calculate an answer fairly easily, using census data and figures from the Pew Research Hispanic Center. Pew gives us the estimated population of illegal immigrants in each state. From that, if we have realistic estimates for the percent that will pursue a pathway to citizenship, the percent that will vote, and the percent that will vote Democratic, we can estimate how many votes to add to Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s vote totals in each state.

I assumed that 40 percent of the eligible immigrants will eventually jump through the hoops needed to gain citizenship, that 40 percent of these will vote, and that 80 percent will vote Democratic (the latter two figures reflect the expected lower socio-economic status of these immigrants).

Using these numbers, not a single state would have cast its votes for the electors of a different candidate in 2012. In fact, in 28 states, the president’s margin would have increased by just a half-point or less. Many of the important swing states are in this category: Obama’s margin would increase by 0.2 percent in Ohio, New Hampshire, Missouri and Minnesota, 0.3 percent in Michigan and Wisconsin, 0.4 percent in Iowa, and 0.5 percent in Virginia. That’s not to say these new voters could never make a difference in a close election, only that their impact is minimal. (Even this oversimplifies things; Obama won 89 percent of the Hispanic vote in New York, but only 64 percent in Virginia.)

The margin would have increased by a point or more in seven states, only one of which is a swing state: 1 percent in New Jersey, 1.1 percent in California, 1.2 percent in Georgia, 1.6 percent in Nevada, 1.8 percent in Utah, 1.9 percent in Arizona and 2.4 percent in Texas. As for the last two turning blue in the next few years, they’re still pretty red states; Mitt Romney would have won both comfortably, even with the revised numbers.

This analysis also assumes that there is no countervailing, indirect benefit to Republicans. Softening its tone on immigration could help the GOP with moderate white voters, just as outreach efforts to African-Americans are frequently targeted more at this vote source.

But the obvious potential source of additional votes would be among moderate or conservative Hispanics. In fact, it is safe to say that this is what Republicans are really playing for here. Remember, the name of the game for the party isn’t to win Hispanics by the same share that they win whites, or even to win them outright. Republicans wouldn’t mind that, but it is unlikely to happen, given that Hispanics tend to be poorer and less conservative than their white counterparts.

Instead, what Republicans are trying to do is narrow the gap between Hispanics and whites among ideological and income groups. If moderate and conservative Hispanics had voted like moderate and conservative whites in 2008, John McCain would have lost the Hispanic vote by just two points.

Indeed, GOP losses among these groups are why Republicans fell out of their “sweet spot” -- between 35 percent to 40 percent of the Hispanic vote -- between 2004 and 2008. In 2004, moderate Hispanics voted only 10 percent more Democratic than their white counterparts, and conservative Hispanics voted only 18 percent more Democratic. In 2008, those numbers shifted; moderate Hispanics were 17 percent more Democratic than moderate whites, while conservative Hispanics were 30 percent more Democratic than conservative whites (these numbers refer to Democrats’ vote share, not to the spread).

The same result is obtained adjusting by income: If middle-class Hispanics had voted like middle-class whites in ’08, McCain would have exceeded 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. And again, there’s a similarly significant shift between 2004 and 2008 in this demographic.

Republican strategists are betting that a large cause of this shift in votes is the party’s increasingly strident opposition to immigration reform. The idea is that you can’t get an otherwise conservative, middle-class Hispanic voter to consider supporting you if you’re threatening to make life so miserable for his grandmother that she’ll self-deport. Put differently, even if Hispanic voters don’t care much about immigration reform directly, they use it (or ugly rhetoric on immigration) as an “information shortcut” to help paint a larger picture of a candidate or party.

Now, no one really expects this to make conservative or middle-class Hispanics vote like conservative or middle-class whites outright. Republicans will never out-identity-politic Democrats, just as Democrats will rarely be able to out-gun or out-God Republicans while reaching out to working-class whites. (When Bill Clinton tacked rightward on key wedge issues like affirmative action and the death penalty, it didn't persuade a plurality of whites to vote for him. But it did mitigate the effects of those wedge issues enough to help him draw close enough among whites to win the election.)

At the same time, there’s no doubt that Democrats would pay a substantial price if they endorsed gun confiscation or began using Richard Dawkins-esque rhetoric on the campaign trail. There’s likewise no doubt that they benefited by promoting candidates who reached out to gun owners and religiously motivated voters in the 2000s, and by avoiding policies that antagonized them when they held the majority.

This is about moving voters at the margins. If Republicans can increase their share among Hispanics by just three points over Romney’s showing -- well within the limits of what can probably be achieved through these shifts -- it would completely wipe out the expected vote gain for Democrats among these new voters. If Republicans got to where they routinely won between a third and two-fifths of the Hispanic vote -- about how they performed in the late ’90s through the mid-2000s -- they’d gain about three times as many votes as the Democrats from the shift.

Needless to say, this is all extremely complicated stuff; both conservatives and liberals would likely dispute some of my assumptions and conclusions listed above. In particular, one wonders whether this move will hurt Republican efforts to reach out to downscale white voters who voted in 2004 but stayed home in 2012 (more on this later).

Regardless, complexity is the key thing to keep in mind as the immigration debate enters its critical phase. It’s difficult to see a scenario where this ends up a bonanza for Democrats, but not difficult to see a scenario where it helps them. But neither is it difficult to see a scenario where this ends up helping Republicans. In fact, one can even imagine how it becomes a bonanza for them. 

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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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