From the beginning of the 2012 presidential campaign, one of the sidebars to which commentators have consistently returned is the impact of the Hispanic vote on the November election. Republicans have been cautioned, not without reason, to remember that the growing percentage of Americans of Hispanic background didn’t think much of their obsession with illegal immigration. And they have been tempted to think that the presence of a Hispanic — most notably Florida Senator Marco Rubio — might not only deliver his home state to the GOP but also allow the party to make inroads nationally on a demographic group that tilts heavily to the Democrats.
Josh Kraushaar writes today in the National Journal to point out that a lot of the assumptions about Hispanic voting trends may be myths. Most notable is the idea that Hispanics are likely to stick with the Democrats even generations after they have arrived in the country. He also is correct to point to that the assumption that Republican attitudes on immigration are similarly set in stone. But there is one more point about the Hispanic vote that also ought to be taken into consideration when discussing 2012 and the future.
The assumption that Hispanic voters are a monolithic group with similar backgrounds and points of view about the issue is also a simplification that has a lot more to do with the desire of pundits and political scientists to make points than it does with political reality.
Those voters who fall under the Hispanic rubric are actually members of a diverse set of groups that are often defined more by their national origin than their language. Puerto Ricans (who are already American citizens before they arrive on the mainland), Cubans and Mexicans are distinct groups with often very different ideas about identity and politics. Thus, the notion that Rubio, the son of Cuban émigrés who would have a real impact on the outcome in Florida, would have a natural appeal to immigrants from Mexico and their descendants or Puerto Ricans may be more of a GOP fantasy than anything else.
Kraushaar, however, is spot on when he punctures the widely held idea that Hispanic political identity is static rather than dynamic and likely to be heavily influenced by economic and social advances by immigrant communities. As he writes, it appears that Hispanic political identification with the left decreases markedly as immigrants and their children become settled. That means that unlike African-Americans, whose social mobility has been more affected by a past history of racism, and Jews, an immigrant group many of whose members have embraced liberalism as part of their religious faith rather than as merely a political avocation, Hispanics are getting more Republican the longer they are in the country. That will present a problem for President Obama and other Democrats who assume they can use the immigration issue to increase their electoral advantage.
Kraushaar may be a bit over-optimistic about Republicans dropping immigration as a conservative litmus test. A harsh response to illegal immigration may be losing traction as a wedge issue in the country at large, but as we saw this past winter and spring, it remained an applause line for GOP audiences at the presidential debates. And because it provided Mitt Romney with the one issue on which he could outflank some of his more conservative opponents on the right, it probably received more attention than it ordinarily would have. However, there has always been a constituency for common sense on immigration within Republican ranks as the support of President George W. Bush and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and now Marco Rubio demonstrated in the last decade.
All these factors point the way to a political future in which an explosion of voters with Hispanic backgrounds might not be the bonanza for Democrats that they and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media think it is.