A familiar phantom is being taken out of the closet, dusted off and used to spook nervous Republicans in an election year. Hispanic voters, the argument goes, will punish Mitt Romney and other Republicans at the polls if they fail to distance themselves from the “hard line” Romney took in the GOP primaries when he endorsed things like making English the official language and self-deportation for illegal immigrants.
Now that Romney has wrapped up the GOP presidential nomination, barely a day goes by that a prominent GOP political consultant or former Bush administration official doesn’t join with Latino activists and liberal bloggers in conjuring up visions of a GOP electoral Armageddon.
Aside from a few fearless conservative pundits like Ann Coulter, no one seems willing to challenge the conventional wisdom that the GOP position on immigration is “toxic with Hispanic voters.”
The question is, is the conventional wisdom right? Should Mitt Romney and other Republicans fear Hispanic retribution at the polls for the positions they take on issues like illegal immigration and official English? And would Republicans improve their standing with Latino voters by changing?
If elections mean anything, the indisputable answer is no. Look at Arizona, where measures dealing with immigration or English have appeared regularly on the ballot for more than a decade and where Hispanics are a significant share of the electorate.
When then-President George W. Bush ran for re-election in 2004, he was celebrated for winning a record-high share of the Hispanic vote for a Republican — 43 percent in Arizona according to exit polls.
But in the same election a proposal to require proof of citizenship for voting and welfare benefits won the support of 47 percent of Arizona’s Hispanic voters — despite being tarred as “anti-Hispanic” and “anti-immigrant” in a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign.
Was 2004 a fluke? Hardly. In 2006 another Arizona ballot measure that was attacked as anti-Hispanic and bigoted — this time declaring English the official language — won 47 percent of the Hispanic vote again while coasting to a landslide 72 percent victory.
And in 2008 a solid majority — 56 percent — of Arizona’s Hispanic voters voted against a proposal to weaken a state law cracking down on employers caught hiring illegal immigrants.
Time and again Hispanic voters have gone to the polls and blown holes in the myth that issues like official English and enforcing U.S. immigration laws are “toxic with Hispanic voters.”
Exit polls only reinforce the evidence of surveys conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center and others showing the issues that matter most to Latino voters are the economy, education, and health care — far different from those of the political activists that claim to speak for them. The record shows that proposals to stop illegal immigration or declare English the official language are more popular with Hispanic voters than Republican politicians are.
Despite all the evidence, many Republican leaders continue taking the story line of corporate political consultants and Democratic activists at face value. Arizona Senator John McCain, who recently urged fellow Republicans to change their tone on immigration, is a prime example.