Nativism's Electoral Flop

Thursday, February 14, 2008

IN THE AFTERMATH of last summer's national debate over immigration reform, elected officials of all stripes were stunned by the popular passion and fury unleashed by the failed effort in Congress to provide an eventual path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Many Republicans concluded hopefully -- and many Democrats reckoned fretfully -- that immigration would be the premier wedge issue of the 2008 campaign. But with the presidential primaries in their homestretch, it now appears that both the hopes and the fears were overstated.

On the Republican side, what's striking is that the talk-show tantrums of the anti-immigrant ranters, despite having riled up a vocal minority, have had little impact on the outcome of primaries. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who styled himself as the nativists' champion, dropped out of the presidential contest after never registering more than a blip in the polls. Former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts took his turn at strident rhetoric against undocumented immigrants, to no discernible effect. Rudy Giuliani all but repudiated what had been his constructive, tolerant record on immigration as mayor of New York and then got shellacked in Hispanic-heavy Florida. Former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas took the most rabid line of all, promising to drive all 12 million illegal immigrants from the country in four months; he seems destined to be an also-ran, barring unforeseen miracles.

Granted, hard-liners remain apoplectic about Arizona Sen. John McCain's erstwhile role as a champion of what they regard as amnesty for illegal immigrants; their ire may yet erode the Republican base in the general election. And many Republican congressional candidates will surely try to exploit the residual fervor on the issue in this fall's elections. But the fact remains that Mr. McCain is the presumptive GOP nominee, despite what amounts to only a mild shift in emphasis in his longstanding position. (He now talks about the primacy of border security but continues to express compassion for illegal immigrants, who, he notes, "are God's children.") Perhaps the more interesting fallout from the immigration debate has been in the Democratic primaries, which have been marked by a major surge of Hispanic voters in some states. In California, 29 percent of Democratic voters on Super Tuesday were Hispanic, almost twice the share they represented in 2004. In Connecticut, their share of the party's primary electorate leaped to 7 percent from just 2 percent four years ago. In Missouri, where the Latino vote was negligible in 2004, Hispanics accounted for 5 percent of Democratic primary voters this year.

Those jumps go well beyond Hispanics' increasing share of the overall population. And while Hispanics constitute a diverse electorate, concerned with jobs, education, health care, crime and other issues, it's a safe bet that the nativist rancor of last year's debate has motivated and mobilized many of them. This is bad news for a Republican Party that has aligned itself with the most noxious anti-immigrant voices.

No doubt, the unrealistic and irresponsible advocates of harassment, roundups and deportations will show up at the polls this November, if only to cast ballots against candidates who would embrace workable reforms. The hope here is that their electoral clout will be outweighed by a backlash among fired-up and fed-up Latino voters.

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