the national interest

How House Republicans Screwed Their Next Presidential Nominee

epa03657247 People show their support during a rally for comprehensive immigration reform on the West Front of the US Capitol in Washington DC, USA, 10 April 2013. Several thousand people attended the rally. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

The House Republican leadership made an important strategic choice this last week. Not the choice to abandon its Tea Party wing and raise the debt ceiling without first undergoing the futile theatrics of a hostage crisis; that was an inevitable capitulation. The truly important decision was the apparent abandonment of immigration reform.

Immigration provided the one possible area for significant legislative action during President Obama’s second term, and also the one material way for Republicans to patch up holes in their leaky electoral coalition. The Republicans’ incentive to pass immigration reform is intuitive and obvious: They need to get right with the large, growing cohort of Latino and Asian-American voters.

In opposition to this intuitive logic, several conservatives have argued that passing immigration reform is irrelevant or even harmful to solving the GOP’s troubles. A mini-industry devoted to debunking the political logic of immigration reform has proliferated on the right. Some of these arguments coat a thin patina of logic atop deep flaws; others lack even the patina.

So, for instance, conservative political analyst Sean Trende argues that the Hispanic electorate may be sizable, but it is distributed geographically in a way to render it relatively meaningless. “Hispanics,” argues Trende, “are much less important in terms of the Electoral College than they are in terms of the popular vote.” Trende goes on to argue that winning back Hispanic voters would not change the results in many states. See if you can spot the glaring flaw in his list:

If the GOP reduces the Democrats’ share of the Hispanic vote to 67 percent, Florida goes Republican. At 56 percent, New Mexico flips. Nevada and Colorado flip at 51 percent and 50 percent, respectively.

Did you spot it? Yes, the first state he mentions: Florida. Trende just mentions Florida quickly and moves on to other states — oh, sure, a small increase in the Hispanic vote would flip Florida to the Republican column, but Hispanics don’t matter much to the electoral college. Florida is important. It’s a huge, really close state! It decided the 2000 election!

Eh, what would a few more votes in Florida really do for a presidential candidate? Photo: RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images

Last July, Nate Cohn wrote a definitive piece explaining why Florida should terrify Republicans. Cohn is hardly a Democratic Pollyanna – he’s also made the bracing case that Texas is not going to turn blue or even purple for a long, long time, if ever. The white share of the vote is rapidly collapsing in Florida, having fallen from 72 percent of the vote in 2004 to under 66 percent in 2012, and is projected to keep dropping fast. Only a precipitous spike in white support for Republicans, probably in keeping with the general white southern reaction against Barack Obama, has kept the state even close; as Cohn explains, if the next Democrat could merely replicate John Kerry’s performance among white voters, he (or she) would win the state by nine points.

Republicans may not have the luxury of building their entire comeback strategy around regaining Florida. As Trende implies, flipping the state alone wouldn’t have given Mitt Romney enough electoral votes to win in 2012. But winning the presidency without Florida is nearly unimaginable for Republicans.

Ross Douthat likewise castigates party leaders for their single-minded obsession with immigration reform as a “one-fell-swoop solution” that would “make other reforms and innovations unnecessary.” As Douthat correctly notes, Latino voters have liberals views across the board. Wooing them on immigration without reforming the Party’s reactionary positioning on health care, taxes, and social issues would probably do little for Republicans. What he fails to engage with is the likelihood that overhauling the Republican platform on economics without moderating on immigration is likely to fail, too.

Coming to the next Republican primary: Should we add electric barbed wire? Laser beams? A moat? A moat with sharks with laser beams? Photo: Scott Olson/2010 Getty Images

The decisive case for inaction that Republicans made to Boehner has been that moving an immigration bill would divide the party in advance of the midterm elections. Republicans are anticipating a favorable midterm election, with a shrunken and more demographically favorable electorate, along with a Senate map tilted heavily toward red states. They don’t want to instigate right-wing infighting when they can instead spend every day harping on the multitudinous evils of Obamacare.

Yet, once the midterms pass, the presidential primary will quickly command attention. Republicans again will be competing for the loyalty of a heavily white, distinctly anti-immigrant electoral base, and the candidates will again face pressure to lock themselves into positions that will alienate Latino and Asian voters. They could still win anyway if the economy is weak enough, or some other major scandal envelopes the Obama administration. But in an electorate that is both increasingly hardened in its partisan inclinations, and growing steadily more Democratic-leaning in its basic shape, the GOP’s outlook is, if not hopeless, decidedly grim. Getting right with immigrant communities may not be sufficient for Republicans, but it’s surely necessary. In place of a step in the right direction, they’re taking no step at all.  

How Republicans Screwed Their Next Nominee