Romney’s Minority Report

Weekly tracking polls by ImpreMedia & Latino Decisions are showing U.S. President Barack Obama leading Mitt Romney, his GOP challenger, by about 45 points among Hispanic voters.  The result is in line with dozens of similar polls taken during the 2012 campaign that point to the same thing: the Republican Party and its presidential nominee are experiencing a major ‘disconnect’ with so-called minority voters. The short-term and long-term consequences of this trend are not lost on the Republicans, including Romney (judging by the transcript of the infamous “47 percent” video): “if the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African-American voting bloc has in the past, why we’re—we’re in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.”

Political scientists will agree with Romney that voting is a function of group identity, among many other factors. A 2012 study of contemporary electoral politics in the U.S. by Logan, Darrah, and Oh shows that individuals within ethno-racially defined minority communities are more likely to participate in the electoral process if they think can cast their vote for minority interests. As the Democrats mainstreamed the anti-racist agenda in the U.S.—President Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic-controlled Congress in 1964-7 did the most heavy-lifting—they earned an enduring “commitment” of the “African-American voting bloc.”

“Whatever their individual and cumulative effects in the upcoming elections, Machiavellian moves like these will probably push ‘voters of color’—to use an increasingly outdated term—further away from the Republican Party in the long term.”

But this wound is self-inflicted. The immediate Republican response to the Democrat-led civil rights revolution was an attempt to wrestle the so-called white working class vote from the Democrats through coded ‘law-and-order’ ideas and policies that alienated the vast majority of African American voters for decades. Republican presidential candidates have won the ‘white’ vote in every election since 1964, but this success has created enormous liabilities for the party and, indeed, the nation; even GOP politicians now acknowledge this historical wrong, and one even made a public apology.

What about the “Hispanic voting bloc”? This entity must be viewed as a relative novelty in the history of American political development. The panethnic signifier ‘Hispanic’ entered official usage in 1976, when the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring all federal agencies apply it to Americans of “Spanish origin or descent” (‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ became officially synonymous only in 1997). The classification relies on self-reporting, such as that used in the 2010 U.S. Census that identified 50 million Hispanics in the U.S. What fascinates politicians like Romney is the rapid growth of this community: by 2050, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population is expected to double from 15% to 30%.

Do the Hispanics constitute a voting bloc? A 2012 survey of 1,220 Hispanic adults in the U.S. conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center suggested that most members of this group in fact prefer to identify themselves by their family’s country of origin (‘Mexican’, ‘Cuban’ etc.) or as ‘American’. The latter term was embraced by 40% of U.S.-born Hispanics in the survey, which can be viewed as a confirmation of the fact that second or higher generation immigrants always express a stronger sense of affinity with their country than their family’s country of origin, as well as a reminder that Hispanics can also be viewed as ‘native’ in the U.S. in the same way as any other community (save for Native Americans).

Surveys like these are salutary for complicating the link between identity and voting. In the case of the Hispanic voters and presidential elections, the most useful tracking polls are those at the state level, and specifically the ‘toss-up’ states (there are between nine and eleven of them this time). The Pew survey also helpfully qualifies the alleged Hispanic ‘commitment’ to the Democratic Party: although the respondents expressed views more ‘liberal’ than those of the general U.S. public, the margins were small. Indeed, in comparison to African American voters, whose commitment to the Democratic presidential candidates tends to be in the 90% plus range (in this election, it is close to 99%), Hispanics appear divided. In the last two presidential elections, Republicans captured, respectively, 40% (George W. Bush in 2004) and 32% (John McCain in 2008) of the Hispanic vote.

Current trends indicate that Romney will win less than 30% of those voters, which might weaken his chances in four battleground states with sizable Hispanic electorates: Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Nevada (but keep an eye on Arizona, Ohio, and Virginia as well). But instead of bemoaning the loss of the Hispanic voting bloc, Romney should remember that here, too, the GOP shot itself in the foot. As far as the Hispanic community is concerned, Obama’s record on immigration—the putative litmus-test issue for the average Hispanic voter in several key states—is also bad; but the ideas voiced by Romney are worse (e.g. his ill-advised endorsement of Arizona’s hysteric immigration law as a model for the nation).

And yet, the Republican Party appears to be looking for more trouble still. American political scientists have found that the flexibility of voting rules significantly affects the minority vote: the more liberal the rules (preregistrations, voter photo-ID requirements, absentee ballot procedures etc.), the greater the likelihood of political participation rates within African American and Hispanic electorates. GOP strategists understood this well when they asked the Republican state governors and/or Republican-dominated legislatures to enact more restrictive election laws (a mission shared with at least one Tea Party organization). Around 30 states in the union have either followed this path or are thinking about it; in this election, several battleground states are affected.  Whatever their individual and cumulative effects in the upcoming elections, Machiavellian moves like these will probably push ‘voters of color’—to use an increasingly outdated term—further away from the Republican Party in the long term. To best the Democrats in the contests of the future, Republican leaders will not only have to come up with some new ideas and new people, but also hope that the nation—soon to be described as “majority minority”—will forget the party’s record of nasty electoral strategies.

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