Does GOP Have to Pass Immigration Reform?

By Sean Trende - June 25, 2013

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By Sean Trende

This is part two of a four-part series. Click to read parts three and four

Part one looked at the broader demographic picture from 2012, established that whites who voted in 2008 but stayed home in 2012 were responsible for a large portion of the demographic change that we saw last election, and sketched out a possible path to victory for Republicans. This path didn’t involve improving their vote share with the non-white electorate, but rather focused on the “missing” white vote. Today I’d like to talk in a little more depth about the immigration debate and the demographic changes facing the country, and ask whether Republicans really do have to pass immigration reform (much less something akin to the Senate’s version of immigration reform) to survive as a party, as too many commentators to cite have suggested. 

Those who try to answer this question usually do so along these lines (sadly, I’m not deleting that much substance with this paraphrase): Republicans did poorly among Hispanics and lost the 2012 elections with a candidate who was easily tagged as anti-immigrant. In 2004, they did reasonably well among Hispanics with a candidate who supported a path to citizenship. Hispanics are a fast-growing portion of the population. Immigration reform affects Hispanics, many of whom are immigrants. Therefore, if Republicans don’t get behind immigration reform, they will never win another election.

This is extraordinarily sloppy thinking -- groupthink at its worst. For one thing, I don’t think it gets the Hispanic vote right. We’ll talk about that next time. For now, I want to focus on the 85 percent of the electorate that this analysis tends to ignore, with two critical questions.

What happens to the black vote in 2016?

The most important demographic question for 2016 -- where we should be focusing our discussion -- has little to do with the Hispanic or white votes (or the Asian or “Other” categories). It is: What will happen to the African-American vote?

Here’s the African-American share of the presidential electorate according to exit polls, from 1980 to 2012:

And here’s the Republican share of the African-American share of the presidential electorate from 1980 to 2012:

As you can see, between 1980 and 2004, the African-American share of the electorate moves within a fairly narrow band, at 10 percent of the electorate, give or take a point (the dip in 1992 is due to a surge of white voters in that election). It then jumps to 13 percent of the electorate in 2008 and 2012.

Likewise, the GOP typically won about 10 percent of the African-American vote before it dropped back to 4 percent in 2008.

A 3 percent jump in a group that votes overwhelmingly Democratic is a tremendously important electoral effect. If it continues, Republicans’ chances of winning elections in the near future are bleak with or without immigration reform. What we should be asking -- it’s a very, very interesting question -- is what happens in 2016, when Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot?

There’s one line of argument suggesting that these voters will stick around. Blacks make up 13 percent of the population, so the recent turnout spike could simply mean that blacks are finally voting at their “natural” rate.

Moreover, while Obama probably turned out a fair number of African-Americans who had never or rarely voted before 2008, reaching into the ranks of those marginally attached to the political system but eager to make history, by the time they voted a second time they were no longer marginally attached to the system. They had become regular voters: They now know where their polling place is, are on the political party mailing lists, and their precinct captains know who they are. This makes a difference.

The counterargument here is threefold. First, even with Obama atop the ticket and Organizing for America working like mad, fewer blacks did vote in 2012 than 2008; the drop-off was just masked by a sharper decline among whites.

Second, voter participation is, and has for a long time been, a socioeconomic phenomenon regardless of race. African-Americans are disproportionately poor in this country, hence the lower turnout rates during the 1990s and 2000s. Until that changes, it seems unlikely that there will be a sustained bump in their share of the electorate.

Finally, what little data we have from elections where Obama hasn’t been on top of the ballot seem to be consistent with at least some drop-off in black participation in 2016. In 1998 and 2006, blacks comprised 10 percent of the electorate; they comprised 9 percent in 2002 (though exits that year are a bit dodgy). This roughly mimicked the share of the electorate that they comprised in 1996, 2000 and 2004 electorates. Yet in 2010, they comprised 11 percent of the electorate, up only one point (unlike the three-point rise that occurred in presidential elections from 2000 to 2008).

We don’t have exits for the odd-numbered elections before 2009, but we can look at actual vote numbers there and do a bit of deduction (though drawing hard inferences is difficult). There are eight majority-black locales in Virginia. They comprised 5 percent of the electorate in 2001, 4.8 percent in 2005, and 4.2 percent in 2009. Now, Creigh Deeds ran a weak campaign for governor in 2009, and had some serious problems with prominent African-American politicians in the state, including Doug Wilder. Also, the rest of Virginia is growing. Still, I don’t think these numbers are what we’d expect if the surge in black votes we saw in 2008 had real staying power. We might have a better idea after 2013.

Now, just to be clear here, I’m not making the ham-handed argument that blacks voted for Obama because he is black. Blacks voted Democratic long before Barack Obama appeared on the scene, for rational policy preferences. The experience of black Republican candidates demonstrates that African-Americans tend to vote for Democrats, not African-Americans.

At the same time, I think you have to be rather naïve to suggest that the chance to make history in 2008 and (to a lesser extent) in 2012 played no role in black turnout, or that identity politics don’t matter at the margins.

My own expectation, considering all of the above, is that African-American participation probably won’t stay at the 2008/2012 level, but neither will it drop back to somewhere between 9 and 10 percent. This is still a significant change. If African-Americans had comprised 11 percent of the electorate in 2012, and Republicans had won 10 percent of the African-American vote, Obama’s victory margin would have been one point instead of four, even with everything else staying the same.

As a final, intriguing point, it’s worth noting that immigration reform doesn’t play exceptionally well with African-American voters. Majorities voted for Prop 187 and Prop 227 (reducing bilingual classrooms) in California, and some political science research suggested that African-Americans there increasingly identified with the Republican Party in the mid-1990s.

The most recent Pew Poll found that while blacks were more likely than whites to support finding a way for illegal immigrants to stay in the country, 20 percent were still in opposition. In addition, they were more likely than whites to support the imposition of fines prior to naturalization, to support a 10-year waiting period for permanent residency, and to believe that legal status should be granted only after the border is secured. On questions like whether legalization would be a drain on government services or take jobs from United States citizens, blacks looked a lot like whites.

The point here isn’t to suggest that the GOP can win 40 percent of the African-American vote by running against illegal immigration. That would be an absurd argument. The point is just to emphasize the fluid nature of political coalitions. This fight isn’t likely to have a substantial impact on African-American voting, but it is an issue that cuts across traditional racial cleavages and could impact things at the margins, particularly if Republicans run on a more populist economic message in the future.

2. Do Democrats have a floor with whites?

We all know the trend lines that should scare the pants off of Republicans. Here’s the trend line that should scare the pants off of Democrats: It shows the “PVI” of white voters. That is to say, it shows how the white population has voted in each election, relative to the country as a whole. So in a year like 1992, when Bill Clinton got 43 percent of the vote while winning 39 percent of the white vote, we show white voters as -4 percent. This is just a way of controlling for “national effects” like the economy so we can see the underlying trend:

It’s been in long-term decline, and the decline is accelerating; about a point-and-a-half toward Republicans per cycle since 1992. Now you may think this is a function of antipathy toward Barack Obama. But it has been on a similar tangent in Congress as well, also at a rate of about 1.5 points every four years:

This has had a profound effect on the electoral vote, and not necessarily in the Democrats’ favor. People like to focus on shifts in places like Nevada. The state is trendy, multicultural, and who doesn’t love visiting Las Vegas? It used to be a Republican stronghold. But over the past decade, its PVI has done this:

Six electoral votes and two Senate seats are clearly moving toward Democrats. But think of another state, West Virginia. It doesn’t get as much attention. Most people associate it with “Deliverance” (though that story was set in Georgia) and few East Coasters go there (unless they’re skiing or road-tripping from D.C. westward).

But West Virginia has five electoral votes, and elects the same number of senators as Nevada. It has done this:

Other heavily white areas, the Upper Midwest in particular, are seeing a less pronounced version of this shift:

Perhaps we can see this best by looking at PVI shifts from 1988 (the election before the Clinton Coalition really emerged) to 2012. Each gradation of red marks a move toward Republicans (capped at 10 PVI points), while each gradation of blue marks a move toward Democrats (same):

The diversifying parts of the country have shifted toward Democrats, as has the Northeast. But far overlooked is the movement in the heavily white interior. This really does matter: It wasn’t that long ago that states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri were places where Democrats could win regularly at the local level, and be competitive at the presidential level.

Nineteen states have moved at least a point toward Democrats, while 25 have moved toward Republicans by a similar amount. If you weight the shift in each state by electoral vote, it actually works out to a slight shift toward Republicans overall.

Now, there is a theoretical maximum for Republicans among whites; sooner or later you run into Madison, Wis., and Ann Arbor, Mich. But we tend to assume that it’s “natural” for Democrats to win huge portions of conservative Hispanics, and almost all conservative blacks. Against this backdrop, it seems a bit touchy to assume that Republicans will max out at around 60 percent of the white vote. This might be the case, but as we’ll discuss next time, it’s entirely possible that as our nation becomes more diverse, our political coalitions will increasingly fracture along racial/ethnic lines rather than ideological ones.

Look at it this way: In 1988, George H.W. Bush, running against a weak opponent in a fantastic environment for the “in party,” won the white vote by 20 points. In 2012, Mitt Romney, running against an incumbent president in what was a neutral-to-slightly-favorable environment for the “in party” by Election Day, accomplished the same thing.

How does a Republican running in a more favorable environment perform today? I don’t see any compelling reason why these trends can’t continue, and why a Republican couldn’t begin to approach Ronald Reagan’s 30-point win with whites from 1984 in a more neutral environment than Reagan enjoyed. It’s not necessarily the most likely scenario, but it strikes me as more likely than a Democrat winning 90 percent of the Hispanic vote.

We’ll come back to this in the future, but for now I’ll just leave you with the following scenario: Let’s assume that immigration reform doesn’t pass, that the Democratic share of African-Americans reverts to 90 percent, that black voter participation drops somewhat, and that white participation picks up a notch. Let’s assume that the GOP share of the white vote continues to improve according to trend, about 1.5 points per year, with a “kicker” of a couple points for our “missing whites” returning in 2016. We’ll cap the Republicans’ share of the white vote at 70 percent.

Let’s also assume that Hispanic and Asian voters gradually react to this by voting increasingly like African-Americans. To accomplish this, we’ll add three points to the Democrats’ share of the Hispanic and Asian votes each cycle.

We might call this the “racial polarization” scenario, and we can model this out using Nate Silver’s handy electoral widget, which includes estimates for population growth over time. Here are the electoral results:

Of course, this chart also assumes a “baseline” environment similar to 2012. In some years, it will be more favorable to the GOP than these demographics suggest, and the GOP will do better. In other years, the baseline will be worse, and the GOP would suffer accordingly. But as you can see, overall the GOP does quite well with this scenario until 2048, when Texas finally goes blue and the bottom drops out (making policy decisions today based on what might happen in 35 years crazy).

This really just illustrates an overlooked point. Democrats liked to mock the GOP as the “Party of White People” after the 2012 elections. But from a purely electoral perspective, that’s not a terrible thing to be. Even with present population projections, there are likely to be a lot of non-Hispanic whites in this country for a very long time. Relatively slight changes among their voting habits can forestall massive changes among the non-white population for a very long while. The very white baby boom generation is just hitting retirement age, and younger whites, while unsurprisingly more Democratic than the baby boomers (who, you may recall, supported George McGovern), still voted for Romney overall.

Tomorrow we’ll talk in more detail about the Hispanic vote, run some more simulations, and conclude, happily, why this hyper-polarized future probably isn’t going to come to pass. 

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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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