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A silver lining for Republicans in the Latino vote

at 02:20 PM ET, 06/25/2012

Could there be light at the end of the tunnel for Republicans when it comes to winning the Latino vote?
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) speaks at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference on Friday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Almost all of the recent coverage of the illegal immigration issue, including on this blog, has focused on the idea that the Democrats’ widening advantage with the Latino vote could be a game-changer for years to come, thanks to the fast-growing nature of that population and its consistent Democratic lean.

That much is clear and agreed upon by strategists on both sides of the aisle.

But a new poll from USA Today and Gallup suggests Republicans may have some hope in future generations. More specifically: They have a better chance at winning Lati no votes as those Hispanics become more ingrained in American society.

The poll comes just more than a week after President Obama laid out a new policy exempting young illegal immigrants from deportation, and on the same day that the Supreme Court issued a split ruling on Arizona’s controversial law cracking down on illegal immigration.

The most encouraging part for the GOP is this: The longer Latinos have been in the country, the more conservative they are.

Here are a few measures:

* While Latino immigrants rate immigration as their top issue, Latinos whose parents were born in the United States rate it as their least-important priority out of six options. Mitt Romney takes 20 percent among Latinos who rate immigration as their top issue, versus 35 percent of those who rate the economy as their top priority.

* On the role of government, Latino immigrants say by a five-to-one ratio that the government should do more to solve the country’s problems — the more liberal view — while Latinos born to parents born in the U.S. (i.e. “third-generation” and beyond) split evenly on the question.

* Romney takes 35 percent of the vote from these third-generation-and-beyond Latinos, versus 18 percent among immigrants.

Now, we should emphasize that even 35 percent of the Latino vote is still not a great number for the GOP. And, the USA Today/Gallup poll shows Obama leading Romney 66 percent to 25 percent overall among Hispanics — slightly better than the 67 percent-to-31 percent margin he enjoyed on Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) in the 2008 election and far better than the 55 percent-to-44 percent margin Democrats managed in the 2008 race. (Some have suggested the gap that year, in reality, wasn’t quite so small and that the exit polling was misleading on that front).

But the idea that Latinos become more conservative as they spend longer periods of time in the U.S. is significant — especially when you consider that Latino immigration has virtually stopped.

If net migration from countries like Mexico remains at a standstill or even if it slows from the torrid pace of the last decade, the Latino population should shift more toward second- and third-generation Latinos, giving Republicans a better chance to win their votes.

Unfortunately for Republicans, that’s a ways off; right now, they are fighting what is very much a losing battle. And even if immigration remains halted or slow (a very big if, particularly if the economy turns around), it will take a lot of time before the Latino population becomes significantly more ingrained in American society. This isn’t something that will happen by 2016 or 2020, in other words.

For now, Republicans have to try to win over a Latino population that tilts heavy to first and second generation Hispanics. A 2009 Pew Hispanic Center study showed just 37 percent of Latino children were at least third-generation. Even though those Latinos are much more likely to vote (or even be eligible to vote), it will still be a long time before immigrants and the children of immigrants no longer dominate the Latino vote.

Until then, the GOP has a major Hispanic problem.

 
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