This is one of the big questions of 2016, and its answer could be key to the campaign’s outcome. Right now, there are plenty of reasons for Democrats to be optimistic about it. But it’s worth entertaining the alternate scenario.
The case for Dem optimism has been fortified by Donald Trump, who in recent days has been spraying inflammatory quotes about immigrants around like a garden sprinkler. It’s true that a number of GOP candidates have condemned his remarks. But as Michael Gerson details, Republicans still appear locked in a debate over the fundamental underlying question of whether their route to the White House lies in pumping up the white vote in the Rust Belt (a strategy perhaps foreshadowed by Scott Walker’s move to the right on immigration) or in broadening their appeal beyond their demographic comfort zone (a strategy that Jeb Bush has urged on the party).
An additional reason for Dem optimism: Some Republicans are reportedly skeptical that the party should bother focusing its energy on nominating a candidate who might appeal to Latinos, on the grounds that those voters agree with Democrats on many issues, so being pro-immigration reform (as Jeb is) won’t be enough anyway.
But some Democrats think their party should devote more time to worrying about the possibility that someone like Bush could win over enough Latino voters to make a decisive difference.
Simon Rosenberg, the president of the NDN think tank, floats the possibility of a GOP ticket that includes Bush and Nevada governor Brian Sandoval as vice president. Sandoval won a third of the Latino vote in his 2010 race, despite striking a hard-ish line on immigration, from which he has since backed off. Sandoval is relatively young. A Bush-Sandoval ticket would be led by a man with a Mexican wife and Latino-American children, and backed up by a man of Mexican descent — representing a bet that the GOP can contest Florida and western states with large Latino populations by improving its cultural appeal among those voters. Remember, Republicans only need to marginally reduce their historically large 2012 deficit among Latinos to improve their chances in such states.
So Rosenberg thinks Dems should invest more now in using the Trump outbursts to do more damage to the GOP brand among Latinos, as a kind of insurance policy against outcomes such as a Bush-Sandoval ticket. Rosenberg emails me:
“While the Democratic advantage today is significant, what we don’t know is what happens with an historically Hispanic and Spanish friendly GOP ticket of, let’s say, Bush and Sandoval. One Bush already used a smart Hispanic strategy to get to the White House. Given that, Democrats should be anything but confident and complacent right now. They need to be doing more, now, to make it harder for any GOP ticket to dig out of the hole Trump and others have dug for the GOP.”
To be sure, there are big differences between the current moment and the run-up to the 2000 election. Dems are far more united behind immigration reform today than in the late 1990s, reflecting a changing Democratic Party increasingly reliant on Latinos. Buzzfeed reports that the Hillary Clinton campaign is developing a very comprehensive and aggressive plan for national Latino outreach. She has already pledged to go farther than Obama did on his executive actions on deportations. And today she renewed her support for comprehensive reform and attacked the GOP as backward on the issue. All of these things are signs of Clinton’s commitment to the party’s new demographic realities.
Meanwhile, House Republicans have steadily moved rightward on immigration, passing on a historic chance to act on the Senate reform bill and voting repeatedly to roll back Obama’s deportation actions. That has many Dems confident — to a point.
“The damage may be too great to the GOP brand,” one senior aide to a prominent Latino House Democrat says. “It may take more than Bush-Sandoval to rehabilitate this huge mistake Republicans have been making. But we don’t know that. Personality, charisma, language, and the individual candidates mean a lot.”
So, yes, perhaps Republicans have moved so far to the right on immigration that the party can’t conceivably re-run the 2000 Bush immigration strategy, or perhaps even reconstituting that strategy wouldn’t be enough to reverse GOP losses among Latinos at this point. But Democrats can’t count on those outcomes.