Winning the Hispanic Vote, Part 2: Candidates and the Immigration Question

How can conservatives and Republicans reach out to Hispanic voters in the future?

Last week I questioned the conventional narrative of Hispanic demographic growth, suggesting that it might not be as substantial as predicted. If it is not, Republican and conservative hand-wringing is not well-founded. Regardless, it is imperative that we reach out to every American with the conservative message.

Does the conservative message need to evolve if it is to become more appealing to Hispanics? That is the question I now turn to.

According to pollsters, pundits and even Hispanics I have spoken with personally, Hispanics are natural conservatives: they tend to be pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, family-oriented, and religious — traits that incline voters toward the Republican Party. This is a true and important point, but it must be balanced by a couple of equally important points.

First, they also tend to prefer big government economic programs and are not especially supportive of protectionism. Second, and by contrast, the “missing” white voters from 2012 — much like Ross Perot voters — care less about social issues or else are more liberal than the conservative base on them (according to Sean Trende). Furthermore, these white voters are supporting a largely free market, with protectionism mixed in.

Republicans cannot afford to ignore these voters anymore than they can afford to ignore Hispanics. Knowing they need both votes, but that their positions are contradictory, “[the GOP is] trying to appeal to Hispanics through immigration reform and to upscale whites by relaxing its stance on some social issues.” This may or may not work in the long-term.

My suspicion is that for conservatives to be successful in appealing to Hispanics (or any other voters) on social issues, the economy has to be better so that people feel like they can afford to focus on such questions. The grassroots have to continue to persuade others to care over time, much like what has happened gradually with abortion.

Fortunately neither Hispanics nor the “missing” white voters are monolithic voting blocs. Conservatives can appeal to number of both groups. How, in the case of Hispanics?

Let’s look at the case of a candidate who won a substantial percentage of the Hispanic vote: George W. Bush.

I tip my hat to Sean Trende for pointing some of these out. Bush was a former governor of Texas, a state with a large Hispanic population. For one thing, he had a history of interacting with the state’s Hispanic community and he speaks Spanish reasonably well. Secondly — and less encouraging — Hispanics tend to support more economically-liberal and big-government programs. Bush tended to be a big government “compassionate conservative.” Limited-government conservatives, such as myself, will balk at moving in the Bush direction on size of government. But there it is.

A third reason for Bush’s success is that Hispanic voters tend to be relatively hawkish, so Bush’s foreign policy appealed to them. Bush was running against a boring stiff candidate in John Kerry; in 2012, Mitt Romney was the stiff, boring candidate. Finally, Bush didn’t say stupid things like suggesting that he would make life so miserable for illegal immigrants that they would “self-deport.”

The elephant (not the Republican kind) in the room, however, is that Bush was in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. Mitt Romney, to offer one counterexample, was not. Those who think that the GOP needs to become more liberal on immigration — a crowd conveniently made up of mostly liberals — will chalk this up as a fact in their favor.

But it must be remembered that the Tea Party takeover of the House occurred in 2010, a year in which Republicans won about 40% of the Hispanic vote. The Tea Party, hardly monolithic on the issue, tends to be against comprehensive immigration reform. Add to this the fact that John McCain, who has been as energetic (if not more so) than Bush on comprehensive immigration reform, did not do as well in 2008 as Bush did just four years earlier.

Opponents matter, of course, but immigration is hardly the sole issue at play here.

In fact, when polled on the most important issue in 2012, Hispanics put jobs at the top of the list. Immigration was near the bottom — one of the least important issues. A solid one-third of Hispanics favor a “control the border first” approach on immigration reform. Finally, immigration reform does not have to mean blanket amnesty. It is a good thing that there are acceptable policy alternatives that don’t include blanket amnesty, because such policies are highly unpopular among black voters — a demographic that Republicans would do well to peal 5% of the vote from.

My own opinion is that while we must begin by enforcing laws on the books, the last twenty-plus years have made some reforms necessary to deal justly, yet compassionately, with those here. Though no policy that can make it through Congress will be perfect, I believe it is possible to enact policies that secure our borders, deal reasonably with those here, encourage respect for the rule of law, and incentivize the most economically and socially positive legal immigration in the future, which would include an increase in high-skill immigration.

The bottom line is that while conservatives may have to reconcile their positions with some uncomfortable realities on the issue of immigration, conservative solutions are available and standing by them won’t alienate the entire Hispanic vote. Even addressing this issue in an understanding, considerate manner will go a long way.

There are other encouraging signs for conservatives when it comes to appealing to Hispanic voters. I will conclude with thoughts on those next week, including an examination of a less talked about subgroup — Protestant Hispanics and what we can learn there that will help us reach out with our conservative message.