Can immigration politics move Republican Latinos into the Democratic camp? Harry Reid seems to think so. And while only 30 percent of Latinos cast their votes for John McCain in 2008, survey data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) indicate that the G.O.P.’s presence among Hispanics’ ranks could shrink even further in an election dominated by immigration issues.
Republicans would be innoculated from losing Latino votes over immigration under one of two conditions: either Republican Hispanics have immigration policy preferences that are significantly more to the right than Democratic Hispanics, or they care less about immigration than do their Democratic counterparts.
Survey data indicate that neither of these conditions holds. In 2008, the ANES asked a representative sample of Americans (including an oversample of Latinos) how they felt about the U.S. government instituting a process to make it possible for illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens. With a “branching format” question, survey respondents placed themselves on a seven-point scale ranging from “favor a great deal” (scored 1) to “oppose a great deal” (scored 7). The figure below displays where Latino McCain voters and Obama voters placed themselves on this scale, and where they placed the two candidates.
The graph shows that there was virtually no difference in preferences over immigration policy between Latinos supporting Obama and McCain: on average, both sets of voters favored establishing a path to citizenship to about the same degree. The big difference is where they placed the candidates on the scale: Obama voters saw a big difference between the two candidates, McCain voters didn’t. The ANES also asked Latinos how important this issue was to them personally on a five-point scale. Here again there was no difference between McCain and Obama supporters: both groups rated immigration as a relatively important issue (group means for the two sets of supporters were both 3.3 out of 5).
In sum, Latino Democrats and Republicans care equally about immigration, and they by-and-large support the same policies. The only difference is that while Democratic Latinos have long perceived big gaps between the two parties on immigration, Republican Latinos have believed them to be interchangeable. In a campaign highlighting Republican support for Arizona’s immigration law, criticism of birthright citizenship, and other strong stances against illegal immigration, this belief will become less and less tenable.