The implications of this for the impending knock-down-drag-out between Romney and Gingrich are stark. Unlike in 2000 and 2008, when George W. Bush and John McCain emerged triumphant despite espousing views on immigration at odds with the party’s base, this year the centrality of the tea party makes it hard to conceive that a candidate with even vaguely moderate views on the issue can prevail. Thus we see Romney unrepentantly adopting a line at the far-right restrictionist extreme. And thus we see Gingrich scrambling on defense: arguing that the number of illegals he would spare from deportation would be “relatively small”; insisting that he would make deporting the rest much easier; and stating that any of his rivals claiming that he is in favor of amnesty are uttering “an Obama-level … statement.”
All of which makes a certain kind of sense (the depressing kind) within the context of the Republican-nomination fight. But, as both Gingrich and Romney are perfectly aware, what they say this winter will be remembered come the fall, when the dynamics in play in the general election will be very different. With the explosive growth of the Hispanic voting population—Latinos made up 7 percent of the electorate in the 2010 midterms, the highest total in a nonpresidential year in history—an already pivotal demographic cohort will be even more important in 2012, especially in key swing states such as Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado. And, at least in theory, President Obama should be ripe for the plucking here, given the disappointment among many Hispanic voters over his failure to wage the aggressive fight he promised for immigration reform. Having won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, Obama has seen his approval rating with this group slip nearly twenty points below that.
To capitalize on this weakness, however, it would help somewhat to have a Republican nominee not seen by Hispanics as overtly hostile. Will Romney be able to achieve that affect if he is the standard-bearer? Consider first the experience of McCain, a figure who by dint of temperament, geographic base, and legislative and political history was arguably the most congenial-to-Latinos GOP nominee ever—and yet still only secured 31 percent of the Hispanic vote. Now consider Romney, who brings to the table none of those assets and now is saddling himself with positions on immigration reminiscent of Tom Tancredo’s. The chances that he’ll improve on McCain’s vote totals with Hispanics strike me as de minimis.
Romney and his people understand the problem but feel they have no other choice than to be where they are. Gingrich, by contrast, at least set out to position himself in a better place. His talk of a more “humane” immigration policy was widely—and correctly, in my judgment—interpreted as having been offered with an eye toward the general election. But in his bid to topple Romney, the pressure on Gingrich to tack to the right rhetorically and substantively will be, and already is, intense. And that, coupled with his penchant for provocative, insensitive, and incendiary language on matters cultural and ethnic, is all but certain to land him in the soup by the time … well, really, any minute now.
It’s possible, to be sure, that none of this will matter in the end. That either Romney or Gingrich or any other Republican nominee will be able to secure such a lopsided margin among working-class whites that a heavy loss among Hispanics will prove endurable. But I wouldn’t count on it—and heaven knows the Obama reelection campaign will be doing everything in its power to ensure that it doesn’t. For the hard guys in Chicago, indeed, nothing has caused more glee than the sight of Romney’s maneuvers on immigration, which they see as extending them a precious lifeline in any number of Latino-heavy states.
Wishful thinking? Maybe so. But it’s not just Democrats who hold such views. It was Karl Rove, after all, who in the wake of 2008 proclaimed, “An anti-Hispanic attitude [would be] suicidal” for his party. Maybe Romney and Gingrich should pick up the phone and give Karl a call before it’s too late—if it isn’t already, that is.