Hispanic Panic

Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from the Miami area, puts it bluntly: "We have a very, very serious problem." He is referring to the GOP's lack of support among Hispanics, which could derail the party's future presidential hopes.

In a September 2007 Washington Post column, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson noted that "a substantial shift of Hispanic voters toward the Democrats" in five states--Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico--"could make the national political map unwinnable for Republicans." All five of those states went for George W. Bush in 2004, and all but Arizona went for Barack Obama in 2008. Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi of Bendixen & Associates, which specializes in Hispanic public opinion, says that "the Hispanic vote played a crucial role, if not the determinant role" in helping Obama carry Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.

Immigration is hardly the only factor driving Latinos away from Republicans.

The numbers in Florida were especially striking. According to the exit polls, Bush won Florida Hispanics by 12 percentage points (56-44) in 2004, while John McCain lost Florida Hispanics by 15 percentage points (57-42) in 2008. In other words, between 2004 and 2008, the Hispanic presidential vote in Florida swung by 27 percentage points.

What explains that? Among other things, a decline in the relative strength of the Cuban vote, which remains heavily Republican. An increasingly large share of Florida's Hispanic population is made up of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Argentines, and other non-Cubans. Indeed, according to Bendixen & Associates, non-Cubans now account for a majority of Latino voters in the Sunshine State. (Just 20 years ago, says Amandi, Cubans represented around 90 percent of Florida's Hispanic voters.) It appears that Obama also did noticeably better among Florida Cubans than John Kerry did four years ago, thanks to the younger generation of Cuban Americans, though McCain still received a huge majority of the Cuban vote.

What about Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico? In each of these states, Latinos made up a significantly bigger portion of the electorate in 2008 than they did in 2004. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that the increase was 5 percentage points in Colorado, 5 percentage points in Nevada, and 9 percentage points in New Mexico. In 2008, Latinos accounted for 13 percent of the electorate in Colorado, 15 percent in Nevada, and 41 percent in New Mexico.

According to the exit polls, Obama ran 16 percentage points ahead of Kerry among Nevada Hispanics and 13 percentage points ahead of Kerry among New Mexico Hispanics. In Colorado, Obama actually ran 7 percentage points behind Kerry among Hispanics, but he still won 61 percent of the Latino vote and ran 8 percentage points ahead of Kerry among white voters.

Even in McCain's home state of Arizona, Obama won Hispanics by 15 percentage points (56-41). In Texas, Obama won Hispanics by 28 percentage points (63-35). James Gimpel, an immigration expert at the University of Maryland, predicts that Arizona and even Texas will soon become "blue" states thanks to their large and rapidly growing Hispanic populations. (In 2008, Hispanics were 16 percent of the electorate in Arizona and 20 percent of the electorate in Texas.)

Just a few years ago, it seemed as if Latinos might be opening up to the GOP. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the partisan affiliation gap among Latinos shrank from 33 percentage points in 1999 to 21 percentage points in 2006. Yet in late 2007, Pew reported that the gap had swelled to 34 percentage points.

What happened? Many blame the debate over comprehensive immigration reform, which produced fierce legislative showdowns in 2006 and 2007. "It was the tone of the debate," says Diaz-Balart. "The tone of some Republicans was offensive to the vast majority of Hispanics." He believes this "had a devastating effect" on the party's standing with Latino voters.

"The immigration debate was catastrophically divisive for Republicans," says a GOP Senate staffer (who is Hispanic). He fears that a replay of the 2006 and 2007 immigration spats would "fracture" the GOP and worsen its image among Hispanics.

But immigration is hardly the only factor driving Latinos away from Republicans. Gimpel observes that Hispanic immigrants tend to settle in cities and urban areas that are heavily Democratic. ("Party building is territorial.") He also makes a broader point: As long as the steady inflow of Hispanics to the United States consists predominantly of low-income, low-education immigrants, the GOP will have a difficult time making serious gains among Hispanic voters. As Latinos climb the economic ladder, they are more likely to support Republicans. "But that takes a while," says Gimpel.

The Census Bureau estimates that Hispanics were responsible for about half of America's population growth between 2000 and 2006. During that period, the Hispanic population grew by roughly 24.3 percent, while the total U.S. population grew by only 6.1 percent. In 2007, U.S. Hispanics "had a median age of 27.6, compared with the population as a whole at 36.6. Almost 34 percent of the Hispanic population was younger than 18, compared with 25 percent of the total population." The Census Bureau has projected that Hispanics' share of the total population will grow from 15.5 percent in 2010 to 24.4 percent in 2050.

Of course, demographic forecasts are often unreliable, and there is no guarantee that Hispanic population growth will continue at its current pace. As economists Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh of the University of California, San Diego, have written,

"population growth in Mexico has decreased dramatically. Indeed, the 1970 to 2000 decline in fertility in Mexico is one of the fastest ever recorded. Will slowing population growth contribute to slower increases in emigration rates in the future? Absent network effects (and holding labor demand constant), the answer would appear to be yes."

For "network effects," think reunification of extended families--a process that means growth here "may continue to accelerate for some time, even as population growth in the two countries continues to converge."

Hispanics are now fueling population growth in unlikely places, such as Iowa. "In some parts of Iowa, where the white population is shrinking, Hispanics are supplying all the growth," the Muscatine Journal reported in August, noting that Hispanic women have a higher fertility rate and that "young white Iowans are moving out of the state right when they're about ready to start families."

The U.S. Latino community is quite heterogeneous, and it would be misleading to portray "the Hispanic vote" as a monolith. In his recent book on immigration, British journalist and former World Trade Organization adviser Philippe Legrain stressed that "successive generations are blending in with the rest of U.S. society." According to data cited by Legrain, "whereas only 8 percent of foreign-born Latinos marry non-Latinos, 32 percent of second generation and 57 percent of third-generation Latinos marry outside their ethnic group."

Indeed, intermarriage is making "Hispanic" a slippery label. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, for example, is married to a Mexican-American woman. Should their three children be counted as Hispanics?

Over time, as Latinos become more assimilated and see their incomes rise, they may look more favorably on the Republicans. But the constant influx of low-skilled Hispanic immigrants benefits the Democrats, says Gimpel, which means the GOP is fighting an uphill battle. And the self-inflicted wounds of the immigration debate have not yet healed. Until they do, Diaz-Balart says the Republicans "are really in bad shape."

Duncan Currie is managing editor of The American magazine.

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