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The GOP and Hispanics: What the Future Holds

By Sean Trende - June 28, 2013

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We pay lip service to the idea that there is no “Latino vote,” but there really isn’t one. It’s an incredibly broad array of voters lumped together for purposes of data analysis.

How much will the Hispanic population really grow?

For all the talk of the fast-growing Hispanic vote, it’s been pretty quiet of late. Net migration from Mexico stopped during the recession, and Michael Barone makes a compelling argument that it is unlikely to start up again. And the truth remains that you could depopulate Mexico -- take every man, woman and child and move them to the United States -- and non-Hispanic whites would still be a majority here.

Of course, Hispanics living in the country will have children, but the Hispanic birthrate has fallen dramatically. In other words, Hispanic immigrants are behaving an awful lot like older immigrant waves. This all has an impact on socioeconomic standing as well: As fewer new immigrants come in, the Hispanics who ascend to middle-class standing will make up an ever-larger share of the Hispanic population.

The most interesting question, though, is how much “racial attrition” will occur? Reihan Salam observes:

[W]hile virtually all third-generation Mexican-Americans with three or four Mexican-born grandparents identify as being of Mexican descent, Duncan and Trejo observe that only 79 percent of those with two Mexican-born grandparents do the same. For those with only one Mexican-born grandparent, the share falls to 58 percent. Only 17 percent of third-generation Mexican-Americans have three or four Mexican-born grandparents, so the ethnic attrition rate is quite high: 30 percent of Americans with at least one Mexican-born grandparent do not identify as being of Mexican descent.

It seems at least somewhat inevitable that Hispanic population growth will slow somewhat (and this has significant implications for voting, given our earlier observations about socioeconomic status and voting). If it does, it makes a significant difference in the baseline for the projections we’ve been using. Here’s the above “modest nonwhite gains” scenario played out with significantly lower Hispanic and Asian population growth (albeit still higher than white population growth):

Conclusion: Arizona, Rubio, or somewhere in between?

Basically, the choice the GOP has here can be summed up as whether it wants the Arizona model, what we might call the “Rubio model,” or something in between. Arizona has recently operated as something of a poster child for everything you could possibly do wrong as a Republican-governed state bordering Mexico. George W. Bush won the state by 10 points in 2004; hometown hero John McCain won by eight in 2008.

But Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who spearheaded the state’s controversial immigration law, won by 12 points. Romney won by almost the same margin as McCain (it was a closer race nationally, but Romney didn’t have McCain’s “home team advantage”). The Hispanic vote grew, and dropped off substantially for Brewer and Romney, but it was compensated for by a surge in white support, particularly among non-college educated whites.

A similar effect is probably occurring in Texas. Even if Republicans aren’t losing ground among Hispanics (we don’t know, because we don’t have exits for 2012), the state should still be trending blue due to demographic change. But it isn’t. Romney won it by 16 points, McCain won by 12, Bush won by 23 and 21 points. When you account for changes in the national environment and Bush being a hometown governor, that actually works out to slight movement toward Republicans.

On the other hand, the GOP could go “full Rubio”: Back immigration reform, nominate a Hispanic-friendly candidate, and see what happens if Hispanic population growth slows. This approach works pretty well, even if Republicans sacrifice some progress with white voters:

I don’t mean to leave the impression that the GOP will win no matter what it does. Tweak some of these assumptions, and you get plenty of Democratic wins too. And it may not matter what the GOP chooses. The most dispiriting possibility is that racially diverse electorates may inherently add racial cleavages to otherwise “neutral” issues, and that polarization becomes inevitable. That’s certainly the experience of Northern cities during the great immigrant wave of the early 1900s, as well as of the American South.

My point is simply that there are a slew of realistic scenarios where Republicans do very well in the future. In most of the scenarios I consider reasonable, the elections stay close enough that either party could win most any individual election for the foreseeable future.

My overall view of presidential elections is that they are like giant algebra problems that suddenly simplify down to three or four variables at the end. Both sides have reasonably good arguments and appeals, run decent campaigns, nominate competent (if not outstanding) candidates and raise enough money to be heard. This end result is that this tends to cancel out.

Things like the economy, wars and incumbent fatigue create a fairly narrow playing field. The other factors, under normal circumstances, can probably move things three or four points in either direction. The fundamentals did a pretty good job predicting 2004, 2008, and 2012, without any regard to demographic shifts. I suspect this will continue in the future.

The GOP and Democrats should pursue the policies they believe are best for the country. If they govern competently, the coalitions will take care of themselves.

* I performed this using Nate Silver’s electoral projection calculator. I’ve made some baseline changes here: 40 percent of immigrants become citizens and vote (as I explained here), the black vote falls to 90 percent Democrat post-Obama, the growth of the black population is slowed down a tick to try to compensate for the likely turnout surge in the Obama years, and the white population growth is increased a tick to try to compensate for the return of some white voters who passed on 2012. 

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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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