The handful of studies on Latino party identification tends to emphasize its variability across elections as a result of the candidate position-taking on key issues, and the fact that parental socialization of American politics is nonexistent for immigrants (Wong 2000; Alvarez and Bedolla 2003; Nicholson and Segura 2005; Uhlaner and Garcia 2005). A common understanding in the scholarly research on partisanship is that today’s immigrants do not have fixed or set party allegiances. There is no research to date that non-citizen immigrants have pre-existing party attachment that they take with to their naturalization ceremony. Rather, immigrants are seen as responsive to the political environment in which they find themselves and develop party attachment as they become citizens, register, and start voting.
In fact, an empirical look at the data confirms this theory.
That is Adrian Pantoja writing over at the Latino Decisions blog. Their polling shows that 71% of non-citizen Latinos identify as independent or with a minor party, or have no attachment of any kind. There is a large number of Latinos who, once naturalized, will seemingly be up for grabs.
This gets at my concern about what would happen to the GOP if immigration reform fails. I am not someone who believes that the 2008 and 2012 elections—and Obama’s success in winning Latinos votes—mean we are heading to a Democratic dynasty in the White House. There are plenty of other reasons why Republicans may win presidential elections and other elections even if they do not immediately broaden their appeal to Latino voters.
But part of my skepticism about the Democratic dynasty is predicated on the notion that, over the longer run, parties aren’t irrational. They adapt to secular trends in the country—shifting public attitudes on certain issues (like gay marriage), shifting demographics, etc. Or they adapt enough that those trends won’t prove fatal and then they can go on to win (or lose) elections based on other things, like the cyclical trends in economic fundamentals. This prevents dynasties from occurring.
If I were the GOP, I’d be thinking about the long game. They don’t need to win the majority of Latino votes now or even in the near future. But, other things equal, they should want to shape the “political environment,” to use Pantoja’s term, so that many of these unaffiliated Latinos will, once naturalized, view the GOP as a party that could represent them.
One prominent theory of party identification is that people identify with the party that they associate with social groups they like or belong to. So it’s not so much about policy, or what the parties “stand for.” It’s who the parties “stand with.” The challenge for the GOP is that even if it supports other policies that many Latinos support, its hostility to immigration reform may be the driving force behind a broader impression: that the Democrats are “the party of Latinos.” And once those impressions are formed, they are very difficult to change. As I’ve noted, the perception that the GOP is the “party of the rich” really has not changed for 60 years.
Now, how firmly established is any impression that the GOP is not “the party of Latinos”? Probably not that firmly established, especially in the minds of Latinos that are not yet citizens. Most are unaffiliated, as noted, and only 25% identify as Democrats and 3% as Republicans. But among those that are naturalized citizens? Nearly half, 44%, identify as Democrats and only 15% as Republicans. In other words, the 22-point advantage Democrats have among non-citizen Latinos becomes 29 points among Latino citizens. This, to me, suggests that the “political environment” is not currently working in Republicans’ favor.
And if immigration reform were to fail, it is hard for me to see the environment becoming any more favorable. Think of the “meso-layer” of Latino opinion leaders—the priests, the Spanish-language media personalities, activists, etc. These are the people that Latinos who may not follow politics closely hear day in and day out, in the pew and on the radio while driving and on their television sets. What are they going to say if reform fails? I think the indications are they’ll blame the Republicans, especially if this sort of frame dominates Spanish-language media:
La frase ya se está haciendo recurrente en el Capitolio: “No me gustaría estar en los zapatos del presidente de la Cámara de Representantes John Boehner (R-OH)”. En un lado tiene al extremo de su partido que no acepta nada que se acerque a la legalización. En el otro, enfrenta las amenazas que auguran un futuro político fatídico si no permite un voto con esta opción.
How is the GOP going to be able to get information in front of Latinos that helps them view the party in favorable ways if Latino opinion leaders won’t provide it?
Now, perhaps there are unforeseen events that will permanently help the GOP among Latinos and that have nothing to do with immigration reform politics in 2013. But if I’m the GOP, what I’d bet on is this: “We’ll be more likely to win presidential elections if we win more Latino votes.” (And if that seems obvious, read Sean Trende’s counterpoint. Not everyone agrees.) And supporting immigration reform, in turn, will make that more likely.
That’s a not a sure bet, of course. But it strikes me as the safer one.