Who Needs Hispanic Votes?

Maybe not Republicans. How demographic math may convince GOP House members that it’s smarter to double down on white voters than back immigration reform.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller (L) talks to Rep. Lamar Smith.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, left, talks to Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, as he arrives at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on June 13, 2013. The Hispanic vote in Smith’s district is 27 percent, so he’s not worried about backlash from voting no on immigration.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Imagine you’re a CEO. First of all, congratulations! Second, whether or not you can keep this job now depends on biennial shareholder votes. The day you take the job, there are 100 shareholders, and 60 of them support you. But on your second day, you get a proposal that would expand the shareholder pool over time, and you know that two out of three of the new additions would vote to remove you. Because you’re not an idiot, you deposit this plan in the circular file.

Now do you understand the plight of the Republican members of Congress? Immigration reform has been dumped in front of their doors like a USA Today in a midpriced family hotel. Most of them have no political reason to support it, and never will.

Until now the conversation about the bill’s congressional prospects has been a Lindsey Graham monologue with occasional Ted Cruz footnotes, as if the House didn’t have its own priorities and math.

This is the math.

Republicans currently control 234 of the House’s 435 voting districts. In 210 of these districts—eight short of the votes you need to elect a speaker—the Hispanic share of the vote is below 25 percent. Of the other 24 districts where Hispanic voters might be problematic for a Republican who attacks the immigration bill, 12 went for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. So, if House Republicans held every one of their current seats that only have a tiny fraction of Hispanics, and the dozen with solid Hispanic votes but Republican tendencies, they’d have the majority with four votes to spare. “Nonwhite voters are a threat to Republican White House chances in 2016, but hardly a threat to the House Republican majority,” says David Wasserman, House race editor of the Cook Political Report.

It’s clear just how skeptical House Republicans are of immigration reform when you consider that one of those 24 sent to Washington from the mixed, white/Hispanic districts is Texas Rep. Lamar Smith (Hispanic vote in his district: 27 percent), who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee until this year, and who still gets a committee vote on a possible immigration bill. Before Thursday’s vote Smith tweeted that “the #Senate #immigration bill ignores the will of the #American people & puts the interests of illegal immigrants & foreign workers first.”

Smith isn’t worried about any backlash to a vote against the immigration bill. Neither are most of his colleagues. The 2010 round of congressional redistricting ensured that two out of three Hispanic voters now live in Democratic districts.

Pro-reform scolds have known that for a while. “If people are only looking at their own little backyards, yes, there are a lot of Republicans who can afford to vote no with no immediate repercussions,” says Florida-based GOP strategist Ana Navarro. “Sure, if you’re in the middle of Iowa, you’ll be fine, but I’d like to think there are enough responsible adults in the Republican Party to pass a bill.”

But the Republican skeptics think they’re being responsible, too. Any “comprehensive” reform they support will, by nature and design, allow more people to compete legally for jobs. That’s never going to be popular in their districts. While the opposition to immigration reform has been milder and quieter than it was in 2006–2007, there are still hints of white backlash. We saw a tremor of that this month; Republicans noticed that the Senate’s bill gave employers a small incentive to hire guest workers, because doing so would duck Obamacare’s requirements to provide health benefits.

So, what’s easier for Republicans? To give in and pass a bill that might add Hispanic voters to your districts, whom you then have to win over; or blocking the bill and upping your share of the white vote? That’s hardly a dilemma at all, and explains why the Senate bill faces such a hard road in the House. As they contemplate 2014 and 2016, Republicans are looking at elections where the white share of the vote may increase compared with 2012. They compare elections when Barack Obama was on the ballot against elections when he wasn’t. The white shares of the vote in 2008, 2010, and 2012 were, respectively, 74 percent, 77 percent, and 72 percent.

“I don’t look at Obama completely as stunt casting,” says Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson, “but the fact that he was the first minority president moved a lot of minority voters. And right now the group of possible Democratic nominees for 2016 looks like a meeting of the Robert Byrd fan club. It’s the white boy coalition. None of these guys will light a fire for black voters.”

But Republicans, increasingly, light a fire with whites. From 2008 to 2012, Barack Obama’s share of the white vote fell from 43 percent to 39 percent. Right after the election, the fact that Obama scored a smaller white vote than Michael Dukakis was cited as proof that the GOP needed to change. Flip the logic. If Republicans can build on the white trend but Democrats can’t build on the nonwhite trends, Republicans will be safe, for a while. If Republicans get back to the 66 percent white vote won by Ronald Reagan in 1984, they’re golden.

Democrats don’t see that happening. “How the hell can they do better among whites than they did in 2012?” asks Paul Begala, a former Bill Clinton strategist who worked for the pro-Obama 2012 super PAC Priorities USA. “Can they really ever get 66 percent of the white vote again? No way. First, because their white voters are old: Romney got 61 percent of whites over age 65, but only 51 percent of whites 18 to 29. What the demographers euphemistically call ‘cohort replacement’ is working against the GOP.  Other white subgroups, like college-educated women, gave Romney just 52 percent.”

Speaking of women! “If Hillary runs in 2016,” says Begala, “she has a good shot at building on Obama’s dominance among younger whites and his strength among white college grads, and perhaps even outperform him among white working-class voters.”

Perhaps, but we have a better idea of what a huge white vote looks like than a post-Obama non-white/-millennial supergroup looks like. Immigration reformers have to convince House Republicans to embrace the uncertainty, and fear the familiar.