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Opposition to immigration reform is a winning strategy for Republicans

- February 27, 2015

(Jose Luis Magana/Reuters)
Some Republicans are so opposed to immigration reform that they are willing to withhold funding for Department of Homeland Security just to fight back against President Obama’s executive order on immigration. To many observers, this is politically foolish. In their minds, the country’s increasing racial diversity makes it risky to oppose immigration reform.
This argument makes some sense. Immigrants and other minorities tend to care a lot about immigration and they tend to favor the Democratic Party on the issue. Recent polls indicate that Latino approval of President Obama went up markedly after he issued his executive order on immigration.
So why don’t Republicans get it? The answer is that Republicans’ opposition to immigration reform actually represents a winning strategy, not a losing one. Here’s why.
Republicans win or lose largely depending on white voters. Whites still make up the vast majority of voters – some 75 percent in 2014 – and whites tend to favor the Republican Party by large margins. Republican congressional candidates garnered 60 percent of the white vote in 2014. All told, 89 percent of all Republican votes in 2014 came from white voters. Put simply, the Republican Party doesn’t really need the minority vote.
Moreover, whites also increasingly care about immigration. A new book by Marisa Abrajano and myself reveals the significant impact immigration has had on white party politics.
We find that white views on immigration are correlated with their partisan identity and their electoral choices. In the last midterm, for example, 75 percent of Americans who felt that most illegal immigrants should be deported voted for Republican candidates. By contrast, only 35 percent of those who favored a chance for undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status favored Republicans. As I show in research with Michael Rivera, the relationship between attitudes on immigration and white vote choice holds even after accounting for the other factors that we think affect how people vote.
But does this correlation imply causation? To answer that more difficult question, we looked to see if attitudes on immigration at one point in time predicted changes in partisanship later on. The answer is yes. To be sure, the effect is not large — but even small individual shifts in partisanship, once repeated over the course of decades, can become massive electoral shifts over time.
In another study, Marisa Abrajano, Hans Hassell, and I showed that reporting on immigration was associated with shifts in the overall share of white Democrats and white Republicans in the electorate. It does, and to a startling degree. The more media coverage of immigration is negative, the larger the share of white Republicans in the electorate.
By any measure, fears of immigration are driving many white Americans to the Republican Party.  And, indeed, the Republican strategy on immigration appears to have been successful. Republicans now control the House and the Senate, the governor’s office in 31 states, and two-thirds of the state legislatures. They are winning the political war.
But what about the future? Isn’t a Republican Party demise all but inevitable when whites lose their majority status toward the middle of this century? The short answer is probably not.
Turnout is one factor. Low Latino and Asian American turnout means that whites will likely still be a majority of voters long after they cease to be a majority of the national population.
An even bigger factor is that the ties of racial and ethnic minorities to the Democratic Party are tenuous. Research by Taeku Lee and myself shows that most Latinos and Asian Americans don’t feel like they fit into either party. In national surveys, those who refuse to answer a question about party identification, those who claim that they do not think in partisan terms, and independents make up the clear majority of both groups. All told, 56 percent of Latinos and 57 percent of Asian-American identify as nonpartisans.
Even among blacks, there are signs of ambivalence. Almost 30 percent of blacks feel that the Democratic Party does not work hard for black interests.
Add to all of this the fact that voters of all racial stripes tend to have short memories and it is clear that the Republican Party can continue its anti-immigration stance well into the future. Republicans will probably relent and agree to fund the Department of Homeland Security but don’t look for them to relent on immigration anytime soon.
Zoltan L. Hajnal is a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and a co-author of “White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American politics.”