The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans have little reason to act on immigration — both today, but also before the 2016 primaries

Any idea that the Republican Party would vote on and pass reforms to immigration law apparently evaporated when voters in Virginia ousted then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in early June. But even before Cantor lost, there wasn't a lot of political incentive for Republicans to move on policy this year, as The Upshot blog of the New York Times pointed out on Monday. Looking at it cynically, most of the closely contested races this year are in states that have very small Hispanic populations.

But compared to the 2016 primary season, 2014 is practically a bonanza of diversity. If the metric is how much will this help me win my next election, there's very little incentive for the next Republican nominee to embrace reform until he or she has already accepted the party's nomination.

We'll start at the beginning. According to data from the Census Bureau, Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to weigh in on nominees, both had relatively small percentage of the voting age population that was Hispanic: 5.2 and 2.8 percent, respectively. Extrapolating out from 2008 to 2016, those numbers will grow slightly -- but only slightly. In the 2012 Iowa Republican caucus, a negligible percentage of voters -- essentially zero -- were Hispanic, according to entrance polls. In New Hampshire, it was about the same.

Josh Putnam, visiting assistant professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina, is tracking likely primary dates for 2016. (For the most part, they haven't yet been set as states jockey for influence.) Using his list as a guide, we can roughly game out the rest of primary process beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.

It's certain that voting will take place in Nevada and South Carolina at the front end of the calendar. South Carolina's got a similarly small percentage of voting-age Hispanics as New Hampshire, and, sure enough, it had a similarly tiny percentage of Hispanic voters in 2012.

Nevada is interesting. According to that Census data, Hispanics comprised about 22.8 percent of the voting age population in 2012 -- and if the trend from 2008 continues, will top 25 percent in 2016. Which is where we get into the other limiting factor: the type of election. Data from the George Mason University's United States Election Project indicates that about 57.1 percent of people of voting age in the state voted in the 2012 general election. But in picking the nominees? That dropped to 1.9 percent -- because Nevada, like so many other states, has a caucus system, which tends to limit involvement from all but the diehards. Only 5 percent of those who voted in Nevada's 2012 Republican caucus were Hispanic -- vastly under-represented as a share of the population.

The next states on Putnam's schedule are Colorado, Minnesota and Utah. They might try to jump ahead of South Carolina and Nevada. Colorado, which The Upshot notes is the only state that is both important in 2014 and has a decent-sized Hispanic population, will likely see Hispanics as about 20 percent of the population in 2016 and 12 percent of the voters -- in the general election. Colorado, too, has a caucus system; in 2012, according to the George Mason project, one voter participated in the caucus for every 39 that voted in November. As for the other two, Minnesota's voting-age Hispanic population is small -- likely under 4 percent of the total such population in 2016. Utah's should be bigger, nearly 17 percent. But only 7 percent of the people that come out to vote in the 2016 general in Utah will be Hispanic, if the trend holds.

The next three states, per Putnam, will likely be North Carolina, Arizona and Michigan. Arizona is the most heavily Hispanic, and its primary had about 12 percent turnout of the voting age population in 2012. But despite that population being about 17 percent Hispanic, exit polls showed that only about 8 percent of Republican primary voters were Hispanic.

There are two reasons for that lower turnout in the primary process. The first is that Hispanic turnout has been lower than the general public consistently in general elections. There's no reason to suspect that this is different in primaries.

The second reason for reduced turnout in Republican primaries in particular is that Hispanic voters tend to vote Democratic. In the 2012 general, Hispanic voters went for President Obama 71-27, with the older population trending slightly more toward Romney. This is the vicious political cycle the Republicans had hoped to escape: lower support among Hispanics because Republicans oppose immigration reform, but Republicans opposing comprehensive immigration reform in part because their base is so heavily non-Hispanic.

This map shows the expected percentage of the voting-age population of each state that will be Hispanic in 2016 (again, assuming trends hold).

The highest percentage of 2012 turnout from Hispanic voters was in those states in the southwest: Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. California and New Mexico are slated to vote in June -- at the very end of the process. Arizona, we mentioned above. Which leaves Texas.

In 2012, you might remember Texas's governor, Rick Perry (R), ran for president. Perry scolded critics of in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, telling the critics, "I don't think you have a heart." For a variety of reasons -- that position included -- voters in Iowa and New Hampshire didn't reward Perry, and he dropped out before South Carolina.

But it reinforces the operative point: that you have to make it through a lot of very white states before Hispanic voters are a substantial part of the electorate. Perry didn't, dropping out long before Texas even voted.