Key elements of the Republican establishment insist that Republicans must support amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in order to make major inroads with Hispanic voters. But an analysis of the Hispanic vote in the last nine presidential elections does not support this claim. It shows, instead, that other considerations help explain how Hispanics vote.
Here is the Republican share of the Hispanic vote in those elections:
1980: 38 percent
1984: 37 percent
1988: 30 percent
1992: 29 percent
1996: 23 percent
2000: 36 percent
2004: 43 percent
2008: 32 percent
2012: 28 percent
During this 32 year period, the total Hispanic vote grew from about 1.5 percent of the electorate to nearly 12 percent.
Immigration (much less amnesty) wasn’t a significant issue in most of these elections. When it was, no clear pattern demonstrates its significance as a driver of the Hispanic vote.
In 1986, President Reagan signed an amnesty bill into law. In the next election, his vice president received only 30 percent of the Hispanic vote down from the 37.5 percent Reagan had averaged in the pre-amnesty days.
Less than two months before the 1996 election, President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIR). Among other things, IIRIR tried to increase border security and deal more harshly with immigrants found to have entered the country illegally or to have overstayed their visa.
Hispanic voters did not punish Clinton in 1996 for signing IIRIR into law. In fact, the Republican share of the Hispanic vote dropped to 23 percent, its lowest during the nine-election period. It should be noted, though, that Clinton had threatened to veto punitive measures that would have barred the children of immigrant children from public schools. Republicans may also have felt some backlash among California’s Hispanic voters for supporting Prop 187 two years earlier.
It seems, than, that in the 1996 election Hispanics weren’t indignant about the passage of measures to combat illegal immigration, but were offended by measures they saw as purely punitive.
In 2004, President Bush hit a high-water mark with 43 percent of the Hispanic vote. He did so, to my knowledge, without supporting amnesty or other measures for the benefit of illegal immigrants.
In 2008, John McCain, who had sponsored a bill that would have granted amnesty, received only 32 percent of the Hispanic vote. This represents both the median and, roughly, the mean share for Republicans in the last nine races.
Finally, last year Mitt Romney received just 28 percent of the Hispanic vote. Romney had opposed amnesty and had taken a punitive-sounding approach to illegal immigrants during the primary season.
This mixed bag of history hardly supports the notion that the road to success (or less pronounced failure) with Hispanic voters in presidential elections can be found in amnesty. Rather, it suggests that immigration debates and/or legislation are not the key to understanding how Hispanics vote.
What are the keys? The biggest, frankly, is party affiliation. Since 1980, Republicans have nominated all sorts of white male candidates. None has come close to receiving half of the Hispanic vote. Rarely has any received much more than one-third of it.
The point is so obvious that it shouldn’t have to be stated. I make note of it only because important elements of the Republican establishment are hell-bent on vastly increasing the size of a vote Republicans never come close to winning.
The second key to how Hispanics have voted is whether an electable incumbent president is running. The two times the Republicans had such an incumbent — 1984 and 2004 — he averaged 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. These two years were the best and third best performances by a Republican presidential candidate.
When the Democrats had an electable incumbent in the race, Republicans were routed among Hispanics. In 1996, their share was 23 percent; in 2012 it was 28 percent.
Each party had one election in which it ran an unelectable incumbent. The Democrats did so with Jimmy Carter in 1980. That year, the Republican received 38 percent of the vote in a three-way race — the second highest of the period.
The Republicans ran an unelectable incumbent, George H.W. Bush, in 1992. He received a 29 percent Hispanic share (albeit in a three-way race).
The six elections that featured an incumbent therefore show that electable incumbents do relatively well with Hispanic voters while their unelectable counterparts do poorly.
Being a minority group member also seems to attract Hispanic voters, although the sample is small. The Republican share in races against Barack Obama, the only minority candidate, averaged around 30 percent. In races against other Democrats, Republicans averaged around 34 percent.
Finally, I would speculate that Republicans fare better with Hispanics when they don’t nominate candidates who tend to come as patricians. Our two “patrician” candidates (by my reckoning) — George H.W. Bush and Mitt Romney — failed to surpass 30 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Republicans are better off with Hispanics when they nominate candidates with a common touch, such as Reagan and George W. Bush. And, of course, Republicans are well-advised to reach out to Hispanic voters, as “W” did, and to avoid even the appearance of being punitive.
But the results since 1980 do not suggest that Republicans need to pander by supporting amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.