PWConservative noted an interesting result in recent Virginia polling: “Hispanics” in the state are the most supportive of President Bush, and the most un-supportive of both Governor Tim Kaine and Senator Jim Webb. He then opened up his comments section for explanations (Shaun Kenney provided one).
As is sadly typical, I’m far too verbose to fit my response in a comment; I have to do a post of my own (sorry, PWC). The “short” answer is that, in reality, there are no “Hispanic” voters. In fact, lumping the myriad of ethnicities into “Hispanics” has led to spectacular errors in analysis.
There was a time when no one would have been foolish enough to use “Hispanic” as a political category. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, no one talked about winning the “white” vote. Voters were “native” (WASPs), Irish, Scotch-Irish, and then later, German, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Greek, etc. In fact, it wasn’t until the civil rights era that the “white” vote was even considered as such.
Part of the problem, as one would expect, was the entrance of the “black” vote. Among the many horrific things slavery had done to African-Americans was the near elimination of any ethnic and national differences among them. Nigerians, Ghanans, Congolese, Kenyans, and Angolans – just to name few (and that’s just the nations, not the far more numerous tribes) were merged and melded into “blacks,” or now “African-Americans.” Add to this the fact that most of the non-black voters in the South were WASPs (and the exceptions – mainly the Scotch-Irish – were in the mountainous areas where few blacks lived), and the notion of “white” and “black” voters gained quick currency in the 1970s and onward.
Thus, by the time “Hispanic” voters were large enough nationally to be of importance to politicians and political analysts, “ethnic” had been replaced by “racial” – and while it may have worked for African-Americans and, to a lesser extent, whites, it is worse than useless with “Hispanics.”
In fact, “Hispanic” voters are as diverse as “white” voters were just half a century ago. It is the failure to understand this diversity that has led both immigration restrictionists and their opponents within the Republican Party to disaster in numerous elections.
Of course, some ethnic groups within the “Hispanic” umbrella are larger than others; I would humbly (and as I suspect I will soon hear, quite incorrectly) submit that there are four ethnic groups large enough to impact elections. As one would expect, their ideological and political characteristics vary, but for reasons most do not realize.
The four I will discuss are as follows: Central American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Mexican. I’ll start with the one of greatest importance to Virginia politicians – the first one.
Central American (actually, Nicaraguan and Salvadoran): This “group” (an actual mixture of three ethnic groups from neighboring Central American countries) is predominantly located in Northern Virginia. As with all four groups examined, they have come to this country (or, in this case, it’s more likely their parents did) for political or economic reasons. In this case, it’s largely political – they are refugees from the Communist-fueled civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
As de facto Cold War refugees, Central Americans are the most Republican “Hispanic” voters outside of Cubans. In fact, the greatest resistance to the restrictionist movement in the Republican Party during the 1990s was the fear national Republicans had of the possible reaction from Nicaraguan- and Salvadoran-Americans just over the Potomac. While the appeal of the GOP has faded as the Cold War ended, both groups reflect the predominantly conservative nature of their homelands. The rightist ARENA party in El Salvador has not lost an election in over twenty years, and Nicaragua’s only leftist presidential candidate – former Communist dictator Daniel Ortega, benefited from a badly divided rightist opposition and was elected in 2006 with only 38% of the vote.
Now, certainly the immigration issue could be a problem if it is characterized as an “anti-Hispanic” matter. However, these are voters more inclined to support Republicans (as the polls cited by PWC showed). As such, they’d be more likely to agree with the restrictionist line so long as the security angle is promoted – to the exclusion of all else. Once the argument heads into social or cultural cohesion, problems can arise.
It should be noted that before he started pushing the illegals-benefits issue, Jerry Kilgore’s best group was “Hispanic” voters; this is yet another example of the Central Americans’ predilection for Republicans.
Cubans: Cuban-Americans’ biggest concentrations are in southern Florida (as is well known) and northern New Jersey (as is not so well known). The southern Florida contingent was practically created by escapees from Fidel Castro, and as such are the most reliable Republican “Hispanics” in America. The New Jersey Cuban-Americans were a force before Castro came to power, and are more inclined to support Democrats, but anti-Castro sentiment is high there as well; therefore, Republicans can win their votes at the national level.
In New Jersey, the illegal immigration issue plays in a similar matter to other voters in New Jersey – not particularly well. In Florida, by contrast, it is perceived to be a disaster. I don’t think that’s quite true. The supposedly most convincing evidence for this – Cuban voters’ rejection of Bob Dole in 1996 – was likely more driven by President Clinton’s surprise signing of the anti-Castro Helms-Burton law. However, as with Central Americans, once the immigration debate shifts to cultural cohesion, problems can arise.
In both of the above cases, however, the Republicans would be favored. That isn’t true of the last two.
Puerto Ricans: New York City has the largest contingent. As such, they are perceived as urban liberals (like most NYC residents). However, their votes have been surprisingly competitive. Rudy Giuliani never won less than 3 in 8 of their votes, and Michael Bloomberg actually split the NYC “Hispanic” vote in 2001, and won roughly 30% in 2005 – against a Puerto Rican opponent. Of course, Republicans haven’t lost an election for Mayor of New York since 1989, so that may not be the best example. My point is, Puerto Ricans tend to blend in politically with their fellow New Yorkers.
For immigrant debate enthusiasts, Puerto Ricans are not part of the discussion – they are American citizens by birth, and have been for over a century. I’m not even sure the issue affects them any differently from their fellow New Yorkers (anti-illegal policies have never been popular in that city).
That leaves the largest, yet least understood, group.
Mexicans: While the biggest concentrations of Mexican-Americans are in the Southwest, they are spreading out across the country. Within the illegal immigration debate, Mexico itself has become the icon of opposition to restrictionism (in part by accident, in part by design). In fact, the biggest anti-restrictionist group in PWC itself goes by the name Mexicans Without Borders.
The myth is that but for the immigration debate, Mexican-Americans would be more at home with the Republicans. Unfortunately, that just isn’t true. While most Mexicans are Catholic, we must remember that the Church in Mexico was persecuted, sidelined, and silenced for most of the 20th Century, first by revolutionaries who literally wrote anti-clericalism into the Mexican constitution in 1917, and later by the quasi-Marxist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000. In the intervening years, Mexico was very much a leftist, secular nation, and it has left behind a secular people – so much so that the National Action Party (PAN) has been prevented from establishing a political majority there specifically because of its friendliness with the Catholic Church. Free market economics hasn’t been particularly popular there, either.
In other words, unlike their Cuban, Nicaraguan, or Salvadoran counterparts, Mexican-Americans are far more political inclined to support Democrats at the voting booth. Even in Texas, where Mexican-Americans have a far longer and more established history, they are predominantly Democratic.
So why did President Bush do so well with “Hispanic” voters? I would humbly submit that it was his abandonment of limited government. Bush, of course, has never been shy about his political opposition to restrictionism, but that hasn’t been enough for other Republicans in the past. Unlike others, however, Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” – with its clear preference for paternalistic government over limited government – has far greater appeal to otherwise left-leaning voters, Mexican-Americans included.
So what does this mean for Republicans – and restrictionists among them – in the future? I would recommend two things for a start.
Security, security, security: Do nottalk about cultural cohesion – it just doesn’t work – but as a security issue, restrictionism can be far more popular than expected. For national politicians and officials, the “playbook” is simple. For those at the state and local level, it’s a little more complicated. Contrary to what one might believe (especially from my previous comments on social cohesion), support for the English language can work (most immigrants see it as the key to the kingdom). Beyond that, the notion of denying services to illegals risks moving the security issue to the back-burner. Given the increasing costs of illegal immigration, it might be better politically simply demand redress from the federal government (either sue, or if you can’t, demand the right to do so). Then the target becomes the federal government for its incompetence, rather than the illegal immigrants themselves.
Focus on the ethnicity, not the race: As can be seen above, campaign strategies that would do wonders with Cuban-, Nicaraguan-, and Salvadoran-Americans will likely fall flat (or worse) with Mexican-Americans. Just as politicians in the 19th century recognized that “white” voters consisted of a myriad of different ethnic groups, the 21st century politician must realize that “Hispanic” voters are just as diverse – and plan accordingly.
Mainly, though, Republicans in particular have to stop talking about the “Hispanic” vote, because there is no such thing. The situation is both more complicated and more hopeful.