The GOP’s Hail-Mary Play for the Hispanic Vote: God, Guns, Guts

Theo Anderson

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By Theo AndersonThe immigration crisis has a basic, depressing human dimension: people who are mostly invisible to “mainstream” America, working minimum-wage jobs or worse. Take a look at Gabriel Thompson’s Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do for a valuable account of the kind of unbelievably brutal and dehumanizing work that’s available to most immigrants.The crisis also has a fascinating electoral dimension. Hispanics are about 15 percent of the U.S. population, making them the nation’s largest minority. (Blacks are nearly 13 percent, and Asians are about 4.5 percent.) So they have the power to swing elections, though that power is diminished by the fact that many are ineligible to vote. Hispanics were about 9 percent of the eligible electorate in 2008.The GOP’s willingness to alienate this large and growing bloc of voters is remarkable. Arizona’s now-infamous law, requiring police to ask for the papers of any detainee that they suspect of being in the country illegally, has forced many Republicans off the fence and into a more aggressively anti-illegal-immigrant stance. The angry rhetoric can’t help the GOP with the Hispanic population, and the party’s position was already precarious.Republicans made some gains under George W. Bush: from 1999 to 2006, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the percentage of Hispanics who identified themselves as Democrats declined from 58 to 49 percent. (The rise in Republican affiliation was less marked, from 25 to just 28 percent.) But in 2007, the trend reversed and all those gains were lost. One suspects that the numbers are even worse for Republicans in the immediate aftermath of recent events in Arizona.But never underestimate the Democrats’ powers of self-subversion. As it turns out, they’re actually worse than Republicans on the immigration issue in some ways.Last year, the Obama administration deported nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants—the highest number in U.S. history. This was the context for the often-replayed exchange between Michelle Obama and a little girl last week in a public school in the Washington D.C. area (see video at top). I was at first a little mystified by the girl’s fear that Barack Obama was rounding up and sending home everyone without “papers.” Surely this was an exaggeration based on what’s going on in Arizona? Nope. It’s a very rational fear based on what’s going on right in the girl’s backyard, at the level of the federal government.So there are no easy answers, and there’s no sure route to political success for either party. Democrats still have a strong advantage with Hispanics, but their recent behavior leaves them vulnerable. Obama’s deportation policy is likely grounded in his fear of appearing vulnerable on national-security issues. But the policy has real effects on the families and friends of deportees all across the U.S., many of whom are voting citizens.Meantime, conservatives are gearing up to play the good-old God-and-values card. In February, a conservative organization called the American Principles Project launched the “Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles,” which operates on the premise that Hispanics “are naturally conservative,” because they hold “traditional views about the role of families, faith, and small businesses in society.” Fifty-seven percent of Hispanics oppose abortion, according to the group’s numbers, and 56 percent oppose gay marriage.How much traction will this strategy generate? African Americans are more conservative, religiously and socially, than the general population. Yet they vote overwhelmingly for Democrats: John Kerry got 88 percent of their votes in 2004, and Barack Obama got 95 percent in 2008. So that example doesn’t offer much ground for hope. But if it’s all you’ve got, it’s worth a try.

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Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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