The GOP's census dilemma: Embrace immigration or gerrymander

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Thursday, December 23, 2010;

Some Republicans are crowing over the 2010 Census, but any red-state gains they make will depend on two big ifs: whether the party undergoes a virtual religious conversion and supports immigrants, or it gerrymanders like mad.

Most news reports this week on the new population figures understated the size of the immigrant impact. If you add their American-born children, immigrants accounted for fully three-fourths of the nation's population growth over the past decade, and not the slightly less than half that was widely reported, based on counting the foreign-born only in the Census Bureau's parallel 2009 American Community Survey.

The impact is even higher in many of those Republican-leaning states in the West and the South that grew the most and are getting more congressional seats. In Texas, the biggest winner, with four new seats, 85 percent of the population growth was minority, according to Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire.

And as we know from polls and the November election, immigrants and their recent descendants aren't looking very kindly on Republicans these days. The GOP, in its fierce determination to force out unauthorized immigrants, has demonized all nonwhite immigrant groups, creating deep resentments.

The latest, egregious act was the killing of the Dream Act by Senate Republicans. The legislation was thought to be the most easily acceptable part of immigration reform because it benefited college students and young people willing to join the military.

The focus in the political debate has been on Hispanics - who make up an estimated 16 percent of the U.S. population - but Asian Americans are nearly 5 percent and are equally pushing for immigration reform, as are smaller, nonwhite groups from Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East.

It would be wonderful if the GOP saw the light and tried to incorporate these new Americans, who generally are socially conservative. But the Dream vote and nativist midterm campaigns suggest that a miracle will be needed first.

Since many immigrants don't vote yet, the party may be able to ride out the 2012 election on the backs of older white males, its core support. But that is a losing strategy over the long term and may not work short-term either.

Predictions for 2012 depend on how you interpret the November results. According to the national exit poll, Latinos voted 60 to 38 for Democrats in November, a significant gap but a surmountable one if you handily win the much larger white vote, as Republicans did.

But the national exit poll is not designed to measure votes by race or ethnic group and has historically undercounted blacks and Hispanics, according to academic studies. The question is the size of the undercount. Latino Decisions, a polling service that focuses on Hispanics, estimated in a post-election survey that Latinos broke 71-to-29 Democrat in the eight states with the largest Latino populations. In key senatorial and gubernatorial races in Texas, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada - all of which gained big in the Census - Latino Decisions reported that 77 to 90 percent of Latinos voted Democratic.

That overwhelming support, for example, would help explain the come-from-behind victory in Nevada of Democratic Sen. Harry Reid that the mainstream polls missed. Nevada had the highest population growth rate of all states.

What all this means is that Republicans in 2012 are going to have to achieve even larger margins among whites. It's easier to resort to the legal cheating called gerrymandering, a practice that both parties embrace.

Republicans control statehouses in six of the eight states adding House seats and in seven of the 10 losing them. They are sure to use that power to redraw districts in ways favorable to the GOP. But here they are limited by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits election practices that discriminate against minorities. Because of past discrimination, all or part of five of the gaining states - Arizona, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas - have to go so far as to clear changes in advance with the Obama Justice Department.

Still, unnamed Texas Republicans told reporters that they can get away with drawing safe Republican districts for two of their four likely new seats. If so, they will temporarily hold off the full influence of rising Latino voters, raising questions about their disenfranchisement and just what kind of democracy we have.

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