Do new data on Hispanic attitudes present an opportunity for Republicans?

December 19, 2013

New data from the Pew Research Center show that by a significant margin, Hispanics living in the United States believe it is more important for undocumented immigrants to get relief from the threat of deportation than have a pathway to citizenship.  Here are the data:

immigration

To be clear, very large numbers (89 percent) of Hispanics support a legal path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. However, when asked to choose between relief from deportation and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the US, a majority (55 percent) of Hispanics chose relief from deportation, as opposed to only 35 percent who chose a path to citizenship.

Why might this present a political opportunity for Republicans? In recent years, Hispanic voters have come to prefer Democrats over Republicans by an increasingly wide margin, illustrated most dramatically in the 2012 U.S. presidential election when Hispanics broke 71 percent to 27 percent for President Obama.

As long as citizenship is the preeminent goal of Hispanics, then Republicans are locked in a political catch-22. If they oppose a path to citizenship, then Republicans provide further evidence to increasingly skeptical Hispanics that the party is not acting in their interests. But if Republicans support a path to citizenship, they risk enfranchising millions of new Democratic voters. Thus the conundrum.

The new Pew data, however, suggest a possible opening. If enough Republicans can get squarely behind measures to reduce or eliminate the risk of deportation for undocumented immigrants, this is likely to be positively received by a significant portion the Hispanic community. This in turn could improve Republicans’ standing among Hispanics, thus over time making supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants less politically costly (in terms of enfranchising new voters) for Republicans. Should support for Republicans among Hispanics rise enough, Republicans could then support a path to citizenship for Hispanics without the fear of giving Democrats so many new voters, which would then in turn probably raise support for Republicans among Hispanics even further.

This admittedly simplified scenario obscures a number of significant complications. First, it is almost certainly the case that Hispanic support for Republican candidates is not something that can be resurrected by simply changing a position on a single policy issue, regardless how important that issue is to the Hispanic community. That said, being perceived as supportive on an important issue is not likely to hurt Republican standing in the eyes of Hispanics; the big question will be how much it could improve it.

Second, there may still be negative consequences if Republicans are perceived as having blocked the very popular (89 percent support among Hispanics) path to citizenship, and the Pew data also suggest that larger numbers of Hispanics will blame Republicans in Congress (43 percent) than Democrats in Congress or President Obama (34 percent) if the current immigration bill (which contains a path to citizenship) is not enacted.

Third, there may be electoral consequences for Republican candidates who are seen as being “soft” on undocumented immigrants among other portions of the electorate, although these are more likely to be felt in the primaries than general elections. So there are risks involved. The question is, with Hispanics growing as a portion of the U.S. population, is this a risk that Republicans will be willing to take?

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He specializes in voting, partisanship, public opinion, and protest, as well as the relationship of social media usage to all of these forms of behavior, with a focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
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