In a recent posting on his Web site, Nate Silver raised the possibility that the Republican Party could more effectively compete in the 2012 and 2016 elections by turning its back on Hispanics and attempting to maximize the support of white voters in enough 2008 Midwestern and Southern blue states to flip them red. This would involve positioning the GOP as the non-Latino party by "pursuing an anti-immigrant, anti-NAFTA, 'American First' sort of platform.'" The Republican Party rode similar exclusionary strategies to dominance of U.S. politics during most of the past four decades.
But America has entered a new era. Propelled by the election of its first African-American president, an increasingly non-white and more heavily Latino population, and the emergence of a new, significantly more tolerant generation, the Millennials, America is not the same country, demographically and attitudinally, that it was in the 1960s or even the 1990s. These changes have altered the electoral environment and lessened the usefulness of divisive strategies that were once effective, but may no longer be so.
Superficially, a non-Latino strategy might seem more plausible than anything else the GOP has attempted since the election of Barack Obama. After offering significant support to George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, Hispanics have recently become a solidly Democratic group. Republicans may have little to lose in not courting them in the next election or two. Nationally, Hispanics voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by more than 2:1 (67% vs. 31%). They supported Democratic House candidates last year by an even greater margin (68% vs. 29%). Pew surveys indicate that four times as many Hispanics identify as Democrats than Republicans (62% vs. 15%).
Adopting a non-Hispanic strategy would certainly be compatible with strategies the GOP has been utilizing for decades. From the "Southern strategy" of Richard Nixon and Kevin Phillips in the late 1960s, through the "wedge issues" used by Lee Atwater in the 1980s, to Karl Rove's "base politics" in this decade, the Republicans effectively took advantage of white middle and working class fears of the "other" -- African-Americans, gays, feminists -- who could be positioned as being outside the American mainstream. Applying this approach to Latinos would only be doing what came naturally for the GOP during the past 40 years.
But, while ethnically exclusionary strategies may offer the possibility of short-term relief, they do little to resolve the deep difficulties now facing the Republican Party. The ethnic composition of the United States is far different now than it was in the 1960s when the GOP began to separate white southerners (and like-minded white working class voters in other regions) from their long attachment to the Democratic Party. Four decades ago, 90 percent of Americans were white, and virtually all of the remainder were African-American. Hispanics were a negligible factor within the population and the electorate. Since then, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in America has fallen to two-thirds. Hispanics now comprise about 15 percent of the population and just under 10 percent of the electorate. Moreover, Hispanics are a relatively young demographic. Even if no additional Latinos migrate to the United States, their importance will continue to increase as older whites pass from the scene.
It is this rise in the Hispanic population that prompted Silver to offer his suggested non-Latino strategy to the Republicans in the first place. But Silver's plan, which he facetiously calls "Operation Gringo," would require the GOP to pull off a rare political balancing act or "thread the needle" to use his term. In order to compensate for expected losses in the increasingly Latino Southwestern states of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and, without John McCain on their ticket, Arizona, Republicans would have to win states like Pennsylvania and Michigan that they have not carried in decades. They would have to do this while not, at the same time, losing Florida and possibly Texas with their own large Hispanic electorates.
Moreover, while it is true that Hispanics are not distributed evenly across the country, Silver concedes "there are Hispanics everywhere now." Latinos were decisive in Obama's wins in closely divided "gringo territories" such as Indiana, North Carolina, and Nebraska's second congressional district and the growth rate of Hispanics is greatest in "nontraditional" areas like the South and Prairie states. This means that "America first" campaigning may ultimately have the effect of hurting Republicans even in some of the "white" states where it was intended to help.
However, the biggest barrier in running against Hispanics is that American attitudes on ethnicity have changed significantly over the past four decades. A new Pew survey indicates that Americans have become less hostile toward immigrants and more positive about policies designed to incorporate immigrants, even undocumented immigrants, into American society.
The number favoring a policy that would allow illegal immigrants (Pew's term) currently in the country to gain citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs has increased from 58 percent to 63 percent since 2007. While 73 percent do agree that America should restrict and control people coming to live in here more than we do now, that number is down from 80 percent in 2002 and 82 percent in 1994. Finally, support for free trade agreements like NAFTA has risen from 34 percent in 2003 and 40 percent in 2007 to 44 percent now.
The Pew findings are confirmed by the findings of a survey recently released by Pete Brodnitz of the Benenson Strategy Group. That study indicated that, across party lines, virtually all Americans (86%) favor the passage by Congress of comprehensive immigration reform when they are given full details of that plan.
Leading the way in these increasingly tolerant attitudes is the Millennial Generation (Americans born 1982-2003). Only a third of Millennials (35% vs. 55% for older generations) believe that the growing number of immigrants threatens traditional American values. Just 58 percent of Millennials (compared with 77% of older generations) agrees that the United States should increase restrictions on those coming to live in America. A large majority of Millennials (71% in contrast to 62% of older Americans) favors a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And, 61-percent of Millennials favor free trade agreements such as NAFTA in contrast to just 40 percent of older generations.
To date America has only seen the tip of the Millennial iceberg. In 2008, just 41 percent of them were eligible to vote and they comprised only 17 percent of the electorate. By 2012, more than 60 percent of Millennials will be of voting age and they will be a quarter of the electorate. In 2020, when the youngest Millennials will be able to vote, they will make up more than a third of the electorate. Over the next decade, this will make the ethnically tolerant attitudes of the Millennial Generation the rule rather than the exception in American politics.
At this early point in the Millennial era, Republicans remain most open to the intolerance and immigrant bashing of ethnically exclusionary strategies. Pew indicates the number of Democrats and independents who favor a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is up 11 points and 3 points respectively since 2007. By contrast, the number of Republicans who favor that policy is down by six points. In the end, a non-Hispanic approach by Republicans would amount to a continuation of Karl Rove's base strategy. As the Republican base continues to diminish in the Millennial Era, that strategy will be a recipe for disaster for the GOP, certainly in the long term, and very likely in the short run as well.