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Mona Charen: Are Republicans Stepping On a Land Mine?

They must tread carefully on illegal immigration to avoid alienating the Hispanic vote

Imagine yourself inside Democratic National Committee headquarters, in the department of long-term planning. Huddling in the no longer smoke-filled room, stocked no doubt with eco-friendly coffee cups and whole-wheat snacks, the savants are pleased with themselves. In the great game of buying constituencies for more government, they believe that the gargantuan health-care law is the greatest coup in history. Not only did it create millions more mendicants, but with the new legislation weighing in at 2,000 pages, endless new work for two other favored groups — lawyers and bureaucrats. Brilliant!

Mona Charen
Mona Charen

Pushed to the back of their minds are disquieting facts such as these: The health-care reform law remains deeply unpopular, with 55 percent (Rasmussen) saying they would like to see it repealed. The Congress that pushed it to passage has approval ratings of 23 percent (Gallup). President Barack Obama’s approval ratings (Bill Clinton’s confident pre-vote predictions to the contrary notwithstanding) have not rebounded since passage.

Never mind, the Democrats reason, by hanging Wall Street around Republicans’ necks and by reviving the immigration controversy (with a great deal of help from the state of Arizona), Democrats will win out. Maybe not in 2010, as off-year electorates tend to skew older and whiter, but certainly by 2012, when President Obama stands for re-election.

The financial reform bill has yet to fully play out. But by stoking controversy over immigration, the Democrats are making a shrewd move. If Hispanics vote in 2010 as they did in 2008, it would be virtually impossible for a Republican to win.

John McCain won 55 percent of the white vote in 2008. Bravo for him. Even with 95 percent of blacks voting for Obama, McCain would have taken the oath of office had it not been for the lop-sided Hispanic vote that went for Obama by 67 percent. While it is true that estimates of the total Hispanic vote percentage have often been overblown (the total Hispanic vote in 2008 was 8 percent, not the 15 percent widely cited), the vote can be crucial in some key states. In California, Hispanics made up 16 percent of the vote in 2008. In Florida, it was 14 percent, and in Colorado 13 percent.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 74 percent of California Hispanics voted for Obama, along with 61 percent of Hispanic Coloradans, and 57 percent of Hispanic Floridians.

While it may be possible for Republicans to peel away some of the 43 percent of white voters who pulled the lever for Obama in 2008, this seems a dubious strategy. Though no Democrat since 1964 has won a majority of the white vote, an irreducible core of white voters does stick with Democrats. Obama’s percentage of the white vote was two points above John Kerry’s, and one point below Clinton’s re-elect percentage. The 41 percent to 44 percent of whites (to take the last four elections) who vote Democrat are almost certainly left/liberals.

Hispanics are not ideologically committed. Not yet. George W. Bush received a respectable 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. As Clint Bolick outlined in the Hoover Digest, a 2006 survey by the Latino Coalition found that 34.2 percent of Hispanic voters considered themselves conservative, while only 25.8 called themselves liberals. More than 53 percent agreed that it was more important for Hispanics to become integrated into U.S. society than to preserve their native cultures. Offered a choice between higher taxes and more government spending or lower taxes and less government spending, 61.2 percent favored the latter. Moreover, like other Americans, Hispanics tend to vote more Republican as they age.

Hispanic voters do feel very differently from many conservatives about immigration. Pew found that 53 percent of Hispanics worried about deportation in 2007, including 32 percent of the native born, and also that 55 percent opposed verification of citizenship before obtaining driver’s licenses.

Republicans who favor strong measures to limit illegal immigration should not sacrifice their principles to truckle for votes.

But neither should they blindly blunder into a political wilderness for lack of finesse. Republicans must take care to couch their opposition to illegal immigration in the overall context of welcoming legal immigrants and appreciating the contribution of immigrants overall. Recruiting Hispanic candidates ought to be a high priority.

The Democrats are losing ground with all segments of the U.S. electorate except blacks. Republicans must tread carefully to avoid alienating the important Hispanic vote.

Mona Charen writes for Creators Syndicate. Click here for more information or to contact her.

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