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Does GOP Have to Pass Immigration Reform?

Does GOP Have to Pass Immigration Reform?

By Sean Trende - June 25, 2013

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).

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

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