In 2010, the Latino firewall in the West allowed the Democratic Party to maintain control of the U.S. Senate in the mid-term elections, ending the “Republican wave” at the Rockies. Polling from Latino Decisions in eight states showed that Latino voters favored Democrats over Republicans 76% to 24% in 2010 House races, 69% to 26% in Senate contests, and 76% to 22% in gubernatorial races, and the issue of immigration was a key factor in their political choices.
As the 2010 elections and Census results make clear, the Republican Party has a “Latino problem” and its position on immigration reform is at the root of it. Incredibly, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), a leading architect of the Republican Party’s immigration agenda, is trying to peddle the exact opposite analysis. He recently wrote: “the 2010 election actually paints a very bright picture of the Republican Party’s relations with this country’s growing Hispanic population.” Smith frequently cites the elections of Marco Rubio in Florida, Susana Martinez in New Mexico, and Brian Sandoval in Nevada as proof that the Republican Party can compete for Latino voters without changing its stance on immigration reform.
A new report from America’s Voice examines—and demolishes—Smith’s claim that Republicans can maintain a hard-line on immigration reform and still court the Latino vote by running Latino candidates. The report, Attention GOP: Latino Candidates Not Enough to Win Latino Vote, highlights several key findings with major implications for Republican strategists and the 2012 cycle:
A candidate’s position on immigration matters far more to Latino voters than her ethnic background. In fact, many of the 2010 Latino Republican candidates ran on anti-immigrant platforms and performed poorly with Latino voters. Neither of the Latino Republicans elected to governorships in 2010—Nevada’s Brian Sandoval and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez—came close to winning a majority of the Latino vote.
Latino voters see immigration as a personal and important issue when voting. In an election eve poll conducted by Latino Decisions in eight states, 83% of Latino voters said that immigration was an important issue in their voting decisions, and fully 60% said it was the most important issue or one of the most important issues. In February 2011 polling from Latino Decisions and impreMedia, 47% of Latino registered voters ranked immigration as the top priority for Congress and the President to address.
Republican politicians are losing Latino voters because of the Party’s stance on immigration reform. After passing the notorious Sensenbrenner bill in 2005 and Arizona’s S.B. 1070 law in 2010, and blocking progress on comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act for the better part of ten years, Republican policymakers are seen as increasingly hostile to the Latino community, and Latinos are increasingly trending Democratic. Latinos voted for the Democratic presidential nominee over the Republican by a margin of 59% to 40% in 2004 (Kerry-Bush) and 67% to 31% in 2008 (Obama-McCain). The swing was even more pronounced among foreign-born Latino voters, with 52% choosing Kerry in 2004 and 48% choosing Bush—while in 2008 75% chose Obama and 25% supported McCain. In 2010, a banner year for Republicans generally, Latinos supported Democrats over Republicans by 75%-25%, according to Latino Decisions.
The national exit polls do not accurately capture Latino voter behavior. Rep. Smith often touts the national exit polls as “proof” that Republicans are doing fine with Latino voters. However, for methodological reasons, the exit polls are notoriously unreliable when it comes to subgroup analysis. Even the head of the 2004 National Exit Poll admits that their ability to capture Latino voter sentiment is severely compromised. For example, in 2010 the exit polls in Nevada said Sharron Angle received 30% of the Latino vote, and in 2008 they said John McCain won 22% of the Latino vote. The idea that Sharron Angle out-performed John McCain with Latinos is literally incredible. The most reliable numbers on Latino political behavior in 2010 come from an election eve poll of 3,200 Latino voters by Latino Decisions, a group that specializes in reaching the Latino electorate. They found that Latinos averaged only 24% support for Republicans in 2010 in generic two-party voting for the House of Representatives – not the 38% touted by Rep. Smith.
Even Marco Rubio has a “Latino problem.” According to Latino Decisions, Sen. Rubio (R-FL) won 62% of the Latino vote in 2010 (78% of the Cuban vote and 40% of the non-Cuban vote). Several factors unique to Florida contributed to this outcome. Florida has a more Republican-leaning Latino electorate than any other state. 2010 was a good year for Republican candidates among all demographic groups, and Florida Cubans were clearly motivated to turnout for their native son. But Rubio’s opponents also failed to make his anti-immigration stance a liability—despite the fact that the Florida Latino electorate is staunchly pro-immigrant. However, if Rubio is to develop into a national figure and help the GOP appeal to Latino voters in a meaningful way, he has to become a consistent and powerful voice for fair immigration reform. As conservative columnist Ruben Navarette wrote in a March 31st column, “Marco Rubio is the Republican Party’s Superman. And, the immigration issue, if not handled correctly, is his kryptonite.”
Heading into the 2012 elections, with the fate of the Senate and the Presidency at stake, the alienation of Latino voters will be a huge liability for the GOP. Rather than listening to Lamar Smith, Party leaders should steer the Party back toward the center on immigration. Otherwise, it will be a long century for the Grand Old Party.