Immigration and the 2012 election

So of course I would love to interpret Romney’s loss as a popular rebuke of the most nativist candidate in recent memory, who made Kris Kobach a campaign advisor, got the endorsement of Jan Brewer, advocated “self-deportation,” and so on. But I am clearly biased, and I’m no political analyst. So let me see if anyone else thinks Romney lost, partly, for his position on immigration.

Tom Bevan and Carl Cannon list 21 reasons why Obama beat Romney. One of them:

2. Amigos de Obama: Early in the Republican primary season, Romney proffered “self-deportation” as a partial policy prescription for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in this country. Romney’s rhetoric was aimed at Rick Perry, who had signed legislation granting in-state college tuition to young people brought to Texas as children.

This line of argumentation hurt Perry, but Newt Gingrich criticized Romney for it, as did the president. Obama, by contrast, embraced the DREAM Act, which would grant a path to citizenship for young immigrants, even those in the country illegally, who enlisted in the armed forces or attended college.

After Romney was nominated, the president signed an executive order barring the deportation of illegal minors. It was mostly symbolic (and perhaps not even legal), but it was politically savvy, and Latino voters noticed. Nationally, Obama received a whopping 69 percent of the Hispanic vote — an even higher percentage than in 2008 — and, with it, the swing states of Florida, Colorado, and Nevada.

Even more ominous for Republicans: George W. Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004; McCain won 31 percent in 2008; Romney garnered only 27 percent this year, even as their share of the electorate has grown from 8 to 10 percent.

That Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Obama might not be due to the immigration issue; it could reflect other issues, such as Latino support for Obamacare, or just general left-leaning. But the fact that Romney’s share of the Hispanic vote is so much less than Bush got in 2004 when he was championing immigration reform, and somewhat less than McCain’s even though McCain got a smaller share of the vote in general, is suggestive. Obviously, if Romney’s immigration position gained white votes while losing Hispanic votes, his immigration position might have been a net advantage. But none of the pundits seem to be saying that.

Here’s Jacob Weisberg in the FT:

The Republican strategy of making the election a referendum on Mr Obama’s handling of the economy was perfectly sound. The problem was that the Republican Party couldn’t pass the credibility test itself. For many voters disenchanted with Mr Obama, it still was not safe to vote for his opponent.

This failure began with the spectacle of the extended primary season, which was dominated by candidates with views far outside the political mainstream…

Mr Romney is not a right-wing extremist, but to win the nomination, he had to feign being one, recasting himself as “severely conservative” and eschewing the reasonableness that made him a successful, moderate governor of Massachusetts, the country’s most liberal state. He had to pass muster with his party’s right-wing base on taxes, immigration, climate change, abortion and gay rights. Many of his statements on these issues were patently insincere, but that was hardly reassuring. Mr Romney’s very insincerity and flexibility made it improbable that he would stand up to the GOP’s hyper-partisan congressional wing in office any more than he had during the primaries…

For women, Latinos, and young voters tempted to abandon Mr Obama, the old Mr Romney might have been a plausible alternative. The new Mr Romney, fettered by a feverish GOP was too risky a choice. (my emphases)

Immigration gets a mention, but Weisberg doesn’t seem to attach a lot of importance to it. By contrast, Fred Barnes stresses it:

There’s one piece of advice Republicans need to heed. They must quit alienating Hispanics by loose talk about immigrants. In presidential elections, they’ve fallen from a 40% share of the Hispanic vote in 2004, to 31% in 2008, to 27% this year. It becomes increasingly difficult to win national elections when at the same time the Hispanic vote is growing, the Republican share is shrinking.

Had Mr. Romney won half the Hispanic vote, he’d probably be president-elect day. As it was, billions of dollars were spent, millions of people enthralled, and the politics of Washington and the nation dominated—all by a presidential campaign that led to nowhere. The survivor in chief was the status quo.

Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel don’t mention immigration, though they do say: “The country is changing too fast. Most people have the sense that America is  different demographically from what it was 20 years ago. But unless they’ve been  reading the latest census data, they have no real idea. The changes are that  profound.” This is a recurring theme in the post-election commentary, e.g., in George Will’s take:

Perhaps Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election on Sept. 22, 2011, when, alarmed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s entry into the Republican nomination race, he rushed to Perry’s right regarding immigration, attacking the Dream Act. He would go on to talk about forcing illegal immigrants into “self-deportation.” It is surprising that only about 70 percent of Hispanics opposed Romney…

In 2012 —  the year after the first year in which a majority of babies born in America were minorities — Hispanics were for the first time a double-digit (10 percent) portion of the turnout. Republicans have four years to figure out how to leaven their contracting base with millions more members of America’s largest and fastest-growing minority…

Republicans can take some solace from the popular vote. But unless they respond to accelerating demographic changes — and Obama, by pressing immigration reform, can give Republicans a reef on which they can wreck themselves — the 58th presidential election may be like the 57th, only more so.

I didn’t understand the “reef on which they can wreck themselves” line. I think Will means that Republicans will wreck themselves by opposing it, but perhaps that’s my bias again.

Eliot Spitzer writes: “Whether it’s single women, young adults, or minorities, alienating the rapidly growing voting blocs is not smart politics. Latinos voted by a margin of almost 3 to 1 for the president.” No explicit mention of immigration, though the implication might be that Romney’s talk of “self-deportation” and his undue tolerance for Kris Kobach and Jan Brewer alienated minorities.

Lisa Lerer at Bloomberg highlights the immigration issue as well:

A former Massachusetts governor with a moderate record, Romney concluded he had to woo the evangelical voters and anti- tax tea party activists with hardline positions on immigration, taxes and abortion…

Those were views the Romney campaign was never quite able to “etch a sketch” away, as Fehrnstrom had predicted in March the campaign would do.

Immigration Issue

Though Romney tried to soften his tone, his primary promise to make things so hard for illegal immigrants that they would “self-deport” lingered with Hispanic voters.

I wonder if Lerer has any good reason to think that evangelical voters are particularly attracted to hardline positions on immigration. This survey by the Pew Foundation finds that frequent churchgoers are more likely to share the mainly pro-immigration attitudes that prevail among religious leaders. Anyway, Joel Kotkin also stresses the immigration issue:

Let’s start with Hispanics, arguably the biggest deciders in this   election. Exit polling shows Obama winning this group — which gave up to   two-fifths of their vote to George Bush — by over two to one. In 2008,   Obama improved his winning margin with Latino voters from 67% in 2008 to   69% in 2012. And for the first time they represented 10% of the overall   electorate.

Obama and the Democrats went after this constituency, taking some   risks along the way about a backlash among whites. Obama’s move to not   deport young undocumented immigrants if they came to this country as a child and met   certain other criteria blurred any negative impact from a still weak economy. In contrast,   Romney’s platform of more or less making life so horrible that undocumented immigrants have canceled out all the GOP candidate’s credible economic and social   proposals that might have appealed to this group.

To this Republican political malpractice there is an even greater threat: the loss of younger voters.   According to CNN exit polls, Millennials voted for Obama 60% to 36% and   accounted for 19% of all voters, up from 17% in 2008. Although white   male millennials turned slightly less enthusiastic, the President’s huge   margin among white women as well as minority millennials — roughly 40   percent of this huge generation — more than made up the difference.

Why did this happen? Generational theorists Mike Hais and Morley   Winograd attribute this to several factors. One is the intrinsic optimism of millennials,   even in the face of very difficult economic challenges. This blunted   Romney’s main argument. Other issues such as gay marriage, favored by   most millennials, as well as a more tolerant attitude towards   immigration drove them away from the GOP and towards the President…

What should the Republicans do now? They certainly will need to move   away from the immigrant-bashing that cost them dearly among the key   ascendant voting blocs of millennials and Hispanics.

Yglesias questions the link between Latino votes and immigration:

Pundits are quickly turning to immigration to explain the Republicans’ Latino problem and to offer a possible cure, but the reality is that the rot cuts much deeper. The GOP doesn’t have a problem with Latino voters per se. Rather, it has a problem with a broad spectrum of voters who simply don’t feel that it’s speaking to their economic concerns. The GOP has an economic agenda tilted strongly to the benefit of elites, and it has preserved support for that agenda—even though it disserves the majority of GOP voters—with implicit racial politics.

But he seems to be in the minority here. All in all, I’m definitely not alone in thinking that GOP losses were in an important degree a function of Romney’s hardline position on immigration. My mental model is that there’s a spectrum of opinion on immigration, and this time around, both parties, in different ways, took positions rather far to the “right” on immigration. The GOP took hardline restrictionist positions and advocated nasty policies like “self-deportation.” Obama kept talking about immigration reform, while actually perpetrating deportations at a faster rate than any other president. The parties ended up pretty close together, but with Obama a bit to the “left” (pro-immigrant) of the GOP, and since their adjacent positions were both right-of-center, most of the spectrum was nearer Obama than the GOP. One troubling implication of this model is that, while it would imply that the GOP paid the price for being the more anti-immigrant party, it would also imply that Obama’s mass deportations helped him politically.

But now he doesn’t need to worry about what will help him politically. He’ll never stand before the voters again. He can follow his conscience, if he chooses. Hopefully on this issue at least it leads him in the right direction.

By the way: while I’m suggesting the GOP and Obama were right-of-center on immigration this time around (though the issue is very complicated: basically, I think ordinary voters are just very ignorant about immigration, so that some of their attitudes might be quite liberal while at the same time they will get stuck in insistence on ends that even the most draconian means couldn’t achieve… but never mind, that’s another discussion), I’m not suggesting that the great and good American people is secretly on the side of open borders and will come through in the end. A self-interested GOP would do well by shifting left on immigration, but I wouldn’t offer open borders as political advice to a party that merely wants to win.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

5 thoughts on “Immigration and the 2012 election”

  1. Bush had higher support across the board in 2004: the higher Hispanic share tracked higher support among more populous (and more frequently voting) ethnic groups. Talking about “share of group X” without mentioning turnout rates and absolute numbers, and comparing to other groups, is easily misleading. For instance, take a look at these numbers:

    “Considerable media commentary will be devoted to how poorly Romney did with Hispanics. The shift towards Obama cost Romney 0.4% of the popular vote. Not too many commentators will notice that Romney’s gains with blacks added 0.26% to his vote total. Of course, Romney’s gains with whites added 2.88% to his vote total. Conversely, Romney’s losses with Asians cost him (apparently) 0.27% of the popular vote. Perhaps even stranger, Romney’s gains with ‘other’ added 0.14% to his vote total.”

  2. Nathan, I think I have to strongly disagree here. It seems that you are falling for the trap that Bryan Caplan cautioned against here.

    You quote a lot of pundits, but my uncharitable impression of pundits is that they often project what they personally like and dislike about candidates onto the broader electorate. And there are plenty of pundits, such as those at VDARE, who have made the opposite argument. Obviously, the folks at VDARE are biased, but so is everybody else.

    I would pay more attention to what people like Nate Silver have to say about the matter, since, unlike the pundits, Silver actually has a good track record of predicting election outcomes, despite the pushback he recently received from a lot of pundits for predicting election outcomes. Unfortunately, I don’t think Silver or the other Five Thirty Eight bloggers have addressed the issue of political messaging.

    There is a deeper counterpoint to your argument. Republicans being pro-Hispanic-immigration (which is the kind of immigration most of the people you link to are talking about) may have the benefit of winning some Hispanic votes, or even of increasing their overall share of the Hispanic vote. But it has an obvious cost: Hispanics lean Democrat, and even a modest proportional gain can be offset by an increase in the size of the Hispanic voter base through more immigration, if the median Hispanic continues to be overall more Democratic than Republican. For instance, if the Romney could have got 30% of the Hispanic vote instead of 27%, but at the cost of doubling the Hispanic voter base, this would redound to the benefit of Democrats, not Republicans. These changes in proportions are key to the Brimelow/VDARE electing a new people argument, which you seem to not address.

    Finally, although you give a token nod to the law of large proportions (whites being a much larger fraction of the electorate means that smaller percentage point changes in the white vote share matter a lot more than larger percentage points in the Hispanic vote share), you don’t grapple with its implications. You write:

    Obviously, if Romney’s immigration position gained white votes while losing Hispanic votes, his immigration position might have been a net advantage. But none of the pundits seem to be saying that.

    None of the pundits you quote seem to be saying that. The VDARE folk, and many restrictionists, have been saying that restrictionism wins more white votes than it loses Hispanic votes. Their main complaint is that Romney was not restrictionist enough to win the enthusiasm of the restrictionist segment of the white voter base. And VDARE is not an isolated fringe here. Restrictionist Mark Krikorian of CIS has made a similar argument here.

  3. I think you’re not disagreeing not with “me” but with much of them mainstream punditry, and if you disagree “strongly,” you’re investing too much confidence in your judgment calls. And VDARE and Mark Krikorian are the last people on earth, other than maybe myself, to analyze the effect of the immigration issue on the election objectively. The fact that VDARE agrees with Mark Krikorian doesn’t make them not an isolated fringe. VDARE and Mark Krikorian’s CIS are both bastions of nativism. You admit that VDARE is biased, but the point is they’re MUCH MORE biased than others (except me) because this is their main issue. The pundits I quoted are more mainstream. I didn’t go out of my way to pick pundits who are like-minded on immigration. I sort of randomly clicked links at RealClearPolitics and on news sites. I wouldn’t claim it’s a scientific sample. My goal was to get a cross-section of expert opinion, from people who don’t particularly have a dog in the immigration fight, to see how they perceived it. Maybe I just hit by chance on pundits who mention it, but it seems to me that the prevailing view is that the immigration issue hurt Romney. Certainly, the prevailing view might be wrong, but these are people who follow politics closely, all the time. Their opinions are probably as good a clue to the truth as you can get.

    Your argument about “electing a new people” doesn’t seem relevant to THIS election. It might be that Republicans hurt themselves in the long run by letting more Latino immigrants become citizens, because the mean Latino immigrant will still be a Democrat, even if they increase their vote share. But if Romney had given full-throated support to immigration reform, the new voters created thereby would come online after the election, over the course of years. They wouldn’t have hurt Romney in THIS election. As for Caplan’s point: yes, one needs to be wary of one’s own biases in interpreting election results. But that’s why I didn’t put too much reliance on my own judgment, but did a quick survey of mainstream pundits instead.

    1. Nathan, you make good points. To be clear, I am not really making judgment calls about this issue — I am relatively agnostic — I just think you fail to address some of the best critiques from the restrictionist side.

      Regarding mainstream punditry, I don’t deny they have some expertise, but I would prefer to put my money on Nate Silver and Intrade — which have a track record of making good predictions. Unfortunately, neither Nate Silver nor Intrade really deal with the issue of what changes in political messaging will make candidates raise their vote share, though it might be possible to indirectly figure this out from their predictions. Perhaps mainstream punditry is the best we can do in the meantime.

      Regarding the “electing a new people” and short-term versus long-term distinction, this is a very valid point. However, since the Republican Party as a whole has an incentive to oppose immigration for the “electing a new people” reason, it imposes some institutional pressures on Romney to toe the party line (esp. in the position he needs to take during primary campaigning). Admittedly, politicians in the US have more flexibility than those in, say, the UK, to distinguish themselves from their party line. But such flexibility is probably limited. Of course, if this is the case, it isn’t in contradiction with your point, but complements it.

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