It’s the middle of spring, and while the Republicans have finally settled on their nominee to challenge President Obama, the general election campaign has yet to truly heat up. The Phony War, however, has begun, and strategists from both parties are poring over demographic data to determine where to allocate resources and how to shape their message. If the election is as close as polls currently indicate, these decisions could prove the difference between victory and defeat.
One part of the electorate sure to receive considerable attention this year are the “Hispanics”. [Via Meadia has never liked this term and, apparently, many of them don’t like it either. It seems a little racist or condescending to identify Americans whose ancestors came from various European countries as “French” or “Irish” while those who come from this hemisphere mostly get lumped together as “Hispanics” — or, for that matter, as Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino and other immigrants and their offspring get labeled as “Asian.”]
Call them what you will, the 2010 census indicated this population increased from 35 million in 2000 to 50 million in 2010, accounting for half of the total population growth. Books like The Emerging Democratic Majority by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira have long held that Spanish speaking immigrants and their descendants are the key to a future Democratic electoral lock in the country (think California), and the prediction is not without support.
Hispanics have traditionally voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, and Mitt Romney articulated the concerns of Republican strategists when he recently said that, unless the GOP can make greater inroads among Latino voters, it could “spell doom” for his party. One of the rising stars of the Republican Party, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, similarly acknowledged the need for his party to offer a more moderate position on immigration. Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles and one of the few Hispanics in the GOP caucus, is crafting legislation designed to allow young illegal immigrants to remain in the country, but not via an expedited path to citizenship.
Meanwhile, as giddy Democrats ponder whether Arizona might be in play in November (the same Arizona that has voted for exactly one Democrat since Truman), Joel Kotkin warns that the left may be celebrating prematurely. Despite the rapid increase in the Hispanic population last decade, Kotkin argues that immigration from Mexico has in fact crested:
Rates of Hispanic immigration, particularly from Mexico, are down and are likely to continue declining. In the 1990s, 2.76 million Mexicans obtained legal permanent-resident status. That number fell by more than a million in the 2000s, to 1.7 million, according to the Department of Homeland Security. A key reason, little acknowledged by either nativists or multiculturalists, lies in the plummeting birth rate in Mexico, which is mirrored in other Latin American countries. Mexico’s birth rate has declined from 6.8 children per woman in 1970 to about 2 children per woman in 2011.
The slowdown in Hispanic immigration also means Latino Americans are increasingly likely to come from second- and third-generation families. And that, says Kotkin, will lead to greater diversity in voting patterns:
This shift could spur the faster integration of Latinos into mainstream society, leaving them less distinct from other groups of voters, like the Germans or the Irish, whose ethnicity once seemed politically determinative.
Kotkin’s thesis echoes what Via Meadia has been saying for some time. Although we recognize the need for a legitimate debate about the specifics of our immigration policy, the fear of waves of Mexicans flooding across the Rio Grande to ruin America are simply unwarranted. Nor is an increased Hispanic population going to grant the Democrats a permanent majority. As successive generations become assimilated into American life, their ideas and political beliefs will spread out as well, just as they did with Irish and Italian immigrants before them.
Furthermore, as the realization of the changing trends in Mexican immigration begins to register with people at the grass roots, immigration is likely to be less of a hot button issue for many voters in the Republican (and Democratic) base. The polarization in the immigration debate is less about the people who are already here than about fears that they are merely the harbingers of an ever-accelerating human tsunami sweeping up from the south.
As those fears diminish, and if Kotkin is right they will, GOP politicians will have an easier time developing policy approaches that appeal both to the old base and to the new voters who, in our system, both parties will have to court.