Original research demonstrates that while the Republican Party has a great deal to gain from successful bipartisan immigration reform, House Democrats face little benefit and even, paradoxically, the possibility of significant losses.
By Alex Engler
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The newest iteration of the Senate’s worst naming convention, the Gang of 8, has come forward with a general blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform. Last week Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects of a hypothetical bill passing through the House of Representatives.
The Senator’s prudence is warranted. Along with the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), McCain co-sponsored the 2007 immigration reform bill that failed to pass the Senate. Even if legislation can navigate through the Senate this time around, the House is a taller hurdle. The House Judiciary Committee just held its first hearing of the new Congress on immigration issues—a hearing in which Republican members painted a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants as equally as extreme as mass deportation.
Yet, the United States population is now 16.7 percent Hispanic, according to the most recent Census Bureau data. Of that population, 82 percent support a path to citizenship. These are demographics that the Republican Party cannot afford to ignore, not because of what they have to lose, but because of what they stand to gain.
Democrats currently control the majority of districts with large Hispanic populations. There are 39 Republican districts that are more than 20 percent Hispanic, and only five that are more than 50 percent Hispanic (compared to Democrats’ 76 and 28 districts, respectively). The map at the top of this article gives a general snapshot of where these districts are located. However, given the advantages of incumbency and the significant influence of gerrymandering, this information alone is not sufficient to inform how immigration reform might fare.
Taking the competitiveness of the House races into consideration puts these figures into a more meaningful context. By comparing the margin of victory across congressional races (total Republican votes minus total Democratic votes) to the estimated Hispanic vote of those districts, the relative influence of this group becomes more clear.
Unfortunately, there is no reliable information on Hispanic voter turnout in 2012. Due to this dearth of hard numbers, it is necessary to make some assumptions. Nationally, about 42 percent of all Americans turned out to vote in the 2012 election, but the Hispanic population is younger and contains more individuals ineligible to vote. Looking forward, however, it is also important to consider that Hispanics account for more than half of the United States’ population growth.
Using three different levels (42, 35, and 30 percent) of Hispanic voter turnout to account for this uncertainty, this article analyzes how shifting Hispanic support would have affected House races in 2012.
The following tables (click to enlarge) demonstrate the shifts in Hispanic voting that would have been necessary to produce a victory for the losing side in the 2012 election under the three turnout projections. The 20 congressional districts that make up each table are the most vulnerable for each party in terms of shifts in the Hispanic vote.
Based on this data, a dramatic shift in Hispanic support toward Democrats would have yielded startlingly small gains in the House. Under the 42 percent Hispanic voting scenario, a 10 percentage point shift toward Democrats would net only one additional seat, and a 20 percentage point shift would turn only six seats.
Conversely, shifts away from Democrats by Hispanics could be devastating. Under the 42 percent scenario, a 5 percentage point shift toward the GOP would have turned five races into Republican victories. A 10 percentage point shift to the right would have handed Republicans 12 seats, and a 16 percentage point shift would have flipped 21 districts. Using the lower turnout models reduces the number of seats changing hands, but the narrative remains the same.
The story is similar when using a different metric of district competitiveness as well. The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index (PVI) measures how each district leans in terms of party affiliation, with zero indicating a balanced district. In this scatter plot, higher PVI indicates a stronger identification with the Republican Party in that district.
Looking at the right side of the graph (high Hispanic population), blue dots outnumber their red counterparts near the horizontal axis (PVI=0). This reaffirms what the data has shown so far. There are many more competitive races in heavily Hispanic areas for Democrats to lose than to gain.
These figures should put Democratic strategists on edge. Many of their victories appear to be heavily dependent on a demographic that leans—by some 82 percent—on one side of a contentious immigration issue. Given such numbers, Democratic political operators must know that a bipartisan compromise on immigration reform might derail any attempt to retake the House if it allows the GOP to gain even a little ground with Hispanics. In addition, there is undoubtedly a substantial group of incumbents who hope to keep this issue in play in order to aid in their own reelection campaigns.
There are two different lenses through which to consider the Republican perspective. First, most incumbent Republicans will not have a strong incentive to vote for an immigration bill containing a path to citizenship if a significant Hispanic population appears to be lacking in their districts. In fact, many conservatives may be far more concerned about primary challengers than Hispanic backlash.
On the other hand, the Republican Party as a whole has a tremendous opportunity to turn districts in their favor. If they can redefine themselves to the Hispanic population, starting with comprehensive immigration reform, they will be doing more than pouring water on the DCCC’s gunpowder—they will be stealing it for themselves.