For G.O.P., Hard Line on Immigration Comes at a Cost
By JOHN HARWOODMARCH 7, 2014
President Lyndon B. Johnson said that with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Democrats signed over the South to the Republicans. Credit George Tames/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — After signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson famously told an aide: “We just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time.” He was right. But he had also done something else: delivered African-American votes to Democrats in overwhelming proportions.
The party of Lincoln has not won as many as one in five blacks in a presidential election since, while the African-American share of the electorate has swelled. That backdrop looms over deliberations by House Republican leaders over whether to kill legislation that passed in the Senate to overhaul the immigration system. The fact that top House and White House aides say it is not dead yet owes largely to fears of hardening anti-Republican sentiment among a Latino electorate that has quintupled over the last two decades.
“If we don’t pass immigration reform this year, we will not win the White House back in 2016, 2020 or 2024,” John Feehery, once a top aide to former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, wrote recently. Even if that prediction proves hyperbolic, recent history gives Republicans ample reason to take the danger seriously. Democrats have long wooed racial and ethnic minorities more vigorously than the Republicans have. Their presidential candidates have won a majority of black and Hispanic votes in every election since exit polls began.
President Obama renewed his courtship this week with a town hall-style meeting on Spanish-language television in which he promoted the health care law and urged the Republican-controlled House to act on immigration. Mr. Obama faced a challenge from one of the hosts about “tarnished” credibility over the failure to enact an immigration overhaul and the record number of deportations he has overseen — a sign that neither party can afford to take Hispanic voters for granted.
But it is Republicans’ performance with that fast-growing segment of the electorate that has declined sharply in the past two presidential races, amid tough talk about border security and opposition to “amnesty” from the party’s predominantly white, older, conservative base. By blocking Mr. Obama’s push for immigration legislation, the House would magnify the party’s political exposure.
“If they go ahead and kill the immigration bill, it’s going to be very clear that Republicans killed it,” said Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic strategist and an authority on Latino voters. “They will have wounded themselves considerably” among Hispanics, Mr. Bendixen said, “based on the feeling that ‘they just don’t like us.’ ”
Such visceral friend-or-foe instincts have driven the African-American vote since the dawn of the mid-20th century civil rights movement. Gradually at first, national Democratic leaders moved their party past the historic identification of Southern Democrats with the “lost cause” of the Confederacy and Jim Crow-era segregation.
As late as 1960, the Gallup organization estimated, Richard M. Nixon, the Republican candidate, drew one-third of the nonwhite vote in his race against John F. Kennedy. In 1964 the bottom fell out for Republicans, to 6 percent of the nonwhite vote, after the presidential candidate Barry Goldwater opposed Mr. Johnson’s landmark civil rights bill.
That constituency has proved impervious to Republican outreach ever since. And with Hispanics, Republicans have recent evidence of the consequence of emotionally charged immigration fights. “They keep coming,” began a 1994 television ad for Gov. Pete Wilson of California, a Republican, showing illegal immigrants running across the Mexican border as the governor he pledged to deny them state services. It helped galvanize white voters for the embattled Mr. Wilson, who won re-election. But his support among Hispanics plummeted to 25 percent from 47 percent four years earlier, according to the Field Poll.
No Republican has won a presidential or Senate race in California since. The Democratic advantage grew even as polls showed that Latinos’ ideological views were little different from those of other California voters. That underscores the challenge facing Republicans who seek to use taxes or cultural conservatism to court Hispanics while talking tough on immigration.
“A Hispanic small-business owner won’t listen to what you have to say on those issues if he thinks you believe he and his family are something less than human,” said Dan Schnur, a former Wilson aide now running as an independent for California secretary of state. To be sure, Republican candidates with special appeal can alter their party’s standing among Hispanics. Arnold Schwarzenegger improved on Mr. Wilson’s showing, winning the 2006 California governor’s race. President George W. Bush, an advocate of a comprehensive immigration law overhaul, won four of 10 Hispanic votes in his 2004 re-election campaign, according to exit polls.
Mr. Bendixen said Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor who speaks flawless Spanish and is married to a Mexican-American, could do the same if he seeks the presidency in 2016. For now, Republicans have been moving in the opposite direction — toward nationalizing the problem that has damaged them in California.
After beating John McCain by two to one among Hispanics in 2008, Mr. Obama defeated Mitt Romney by nearly three to one in 2012. In the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the Republican Party’s favorable rating among whites had dropped four points, to 26 percent, since early 2009. It had dropped by 10 points, to 18 percent, among Hispanics.
That matters little to many Republican candidates in this year’s midterm elections. Few Republican-held House districts contain heavy concentrations of Hispanic voters. In the 11 most competitive Senate races, 10 take place in a state with a Hispanic population below the national average.
But the problem matters a lot to Republicans, who want to win the White House again after losing the presidential popular vote in five of the last six elections. By 2030, the Pew Hispanic Center projects, the Latino electorate will double in size. The House speaker, John A. Boehner, has made clear he considers overhauling the immigration system important to the party’s future. He first won his seat in 1990, when Democrats controlled Congress but Republicans still dominated presidential races.
“Ask 1970s and 1980s Democrats how well presidential elections go when you allow your congressional wing to take the lead,” Mr. Schnur observed. “Ultimately the Republican Party is going to have to fall in line,” he said. “The only question is how much political pain they suffer in the meantime.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 8, 2014, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: For G.O.P., Hard Line on Immigration Comes at a Cost