Democrats Risk Losing Hispanics
By GERALD F. SEIB
One of the big bonuses Democrats enjoyed this year was a surge of support among Hispanic voters, a surge larger than the party would have dared to dream of just a couple of years ago.
Now, one of the biggest questions Democrats face is whether hardening attitudes toward immigration, aggravated by hard economic times and rising unemployment, will push the party down paths that could undercut that Hispanic support, much as hardening rhetoric undermined Hispanic support for Republicans in the past two years.
The larger Democratic majority’s real test with Hispanics, in other words, is at the beginning rather than at the end.
For those who have forgotten recent history, just four short years ago President George W. Bush seemed to be making big inroads among Hispanic voters for the Republican Party. The share of Hispanics pulling the Republican lever for president rose between 2000 and 2004 to the point where winning a majority of Hispanic voters seemed possible. Mr. Bush and his political seer, Karl Rove, saw rising Hispanic backing as a cornerstone of an enduring Republican majority.
Then came the immigration debate of the past two years, when Mr. Bush pushed an immigration-reform plan that included a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants already working in this country. His own party in Congress — along with some Democrats, to be sure — rose up to kill that kind of reform, in favor of doing more to secure borders and expel illegal immigrants from the workplace.
That approach surely was in keeping with the popular mood. But the immigrant-unfriendly rhetoric surrounding it dealt a blow to Republicans’ hope of making further inroads with Hispanics.
Then came this year’s voting. The surge in Hispanic support for Barack Obama was one of the most striking results of the 2008 election — and one with big potential long-term implications. Two-thirds of Hispanics voted Democratic in the presidential election, up from 53% in 2004, exit polling indicates, while the Republican share fell to 32% from 44%.
Do the math, and that translates to a swing of almost three million votes for Democrats this year. More important, the surge helped Mr. Obama turn the key states of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida.
Barack Obama is enormously popular among the U.S. Hispanic population. WSJ’s Jerry Seib discusses whether Democrats can address calls for immigration reform and keep the Hispanic vote loyal to their party.
Republican nominee John McCain lamented over that very turn of events this weekend. In an appearance on ABC’s "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," he told his own party: "Very frankly, one of the issues that we’re going to address very seriously is Hispanic participation in the Republican Party….We Republicans are going to have to recruit and elect Hispanic candidates to offices, and do a lot of other things, because that’s a growing part of our population."
Which brings us to today. Now the burden of handling the immigration-reform question falls on Democrats rather than Republicans. In calmer times, the party could be expected to push precisely the kind of immigration reform that Mr. Bush tried to get through Congress early this year — a reform that would include a larger legal immigrant work force and a path toward citizenship for some illegal immigrants.
But that was before the economy went into the tank and unemployment started rising. Pushing any kind of immigration reform, particularly one that includes a path toward legalization, is a lot harder in an environment in which Americans are losing jobs.
That mood was captured late last week by Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who wrote a column in the Des Moines Register pushing a bill he has written to bolster the Internal Revenue Service’s ability to ferret out illegal immigrants in the workplace.
"The economic crisis has placed too many families in peril," Rep. King wrote. "According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 9.5 million Americans are out of work and looking for jobs. It’s a staggering figure, and is particularly infuriating when you consider that the Pew Hispanic Center estimates 7 million jobs in this country are held by illegal immigrants."
Expect to hear more of that kind of rhetoric if the idea of immigration reform reappears on the political horizon. For that reason, some Democratic leaders in Congress consider the whole idea of immigration reform to be radioactive. Privately, they say they simply want to stay away from it.
Yet those who push immigration reform still expect action. Mr. Obama "himself promised he was going to push on immigration reform in the first year," says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a nonpartisan advocacy group backing immigration reform.
Mr. Sharry says he is encouraged by Mr. Obama’s decision to appoint New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to key cabinet posts; both, he says, are "border-state governors with a strong history of support for immigration reform." Failure to act quickly, he argues, could suppress the Hispanic vote for Democrats in the crucial 2010 congressional elections.
Immigration reform is hardly the only issue of importance to Hispanic voters, of course, but it surely is near the top of the list. Right now, Mr. Obama is riding a huge high with Hispanics. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last week, he got a positive rating from 82% of the Hispanics surveyed.
The trick will be keeping that sentiment intact in an environment in which bad economics could translate into anti-immigrant sentiment within his own party.