Political Hay

Immigration Didn’t Doom Romney

Newt Gingrich's attacks were a flop with Florida Hispanic voters.

By 2.2.12

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In Florida, Newt Gingrich ran a Spanish-language ad attacking Mitt Romney as anti-immigrant. Gingrich pulled the ad after being reprimanded by Sen. Marco Rubio. "This kind of language is more than just unfortunate. It's inaccurate, inflammatory, and doesn't belong in this campaign," Rubio told the Miami Herald.

"The truth is that neither of these two men is anti-immigrant," Rubio continued. "Both are pro-legal immigration and both have positive messages that play well in the Hispanic community." But even after Gingrich pulled his ad, he continued the assault.

"I think he's amazingly insensitive to the realities of the immigrant community -- his whole concept of self-deportation. I've not met anyone who thinks it's in touch with reality. People aren't going to self- deport," Gingrich told the Spanish-language network Univision. He said that encouraging illegal immigrants to leave the country voluntarily is an "Obama-level fantasy."

When Romney and Gingrich sparred over illegal immigration at the second Florida debate, the former House speaker accused Romney of wanting to deport grandparents. "Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers," Romney shot back. But some Latino activists sided with Gingrich over Romney and Rubio.

Somos Republicans, a Latino GOP group, issued a tough statement: "Marco Rubio has fallen off of his rocker. Not only does Rubio not support the DREAM Act, he also supports Arizona's harsh anti-immigrant law. Now he is telling Republican 2012 Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich to pull his ads about Mitt Romney's anti-immigrant positions."

Actual Latino voters -- who accounted for 14 percent of the Florida primary turnout -- rendered a different verdict. Romney won the Hispanic vote with a 54 percent majority. Gingrich came in a distant second at 29 percent. Breaking down the numbers further, Romney beat Gingrich 57 percent to 31 percent among Cuban-Americans and 52 percent to 23 percent among non-Cuban Hispanics.

Just as Gingrich failed to attract a backlash against Romney for supposedly denying kosher foods to Holocaust survivors, he clearly did not elicit a Latino backlash against Romney's views on illegal immigration. Contrary to the apparent beliefs of many candidates and most ethnic activists, Hispanics don't view immigration as their biggest political issue. In fact, the Pew Hispanic Center found registered Latino voters ranked immigration fifth out of seven issues in personal importance.

Among Cuban-Americans, opposition to Fidel Castro's island tyranny has always loomed larger as an issue than immigration. And while Rubio remained neutral, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Lincoln Diaz-Balart all strongly supported Romney.

That said, Rubio took an immigration position similar to Romney's during the 2010 midterm elections (much to the consternation of Somos Republicans). That didn't stop Rubio from winning 55 percent of the Latino vote. That was 30 points better than his closest opponent, Republican turncoat Charlie Crist, who took 25 percent. The Democratic nominee carried only 20 percent of Florida Hispanics.

Of course, there may also have been some ambiguity about Romney's position. When it came to dealing with illegal immigrants, Florida Republican voters were divided three ways: 38 percent wanted to let them have a chance to apply for citizenship, 27 percent wanted to let them stay as temporary workers, and 30 percent wanted to deport them. Romney swept all three groups, carrying them by 47 percent, 51 percent, and 49 percent, respectively.

It's not the first time Romney has been all things to all people. But the much-ridiculed self-deportation strategy -- actually attrition through enforcement -- may indeed be a third way on immigration issues. Contrary to Gingrich's assertions, attrition isn't intended to deport grandmothers. The people with the weakest ties to the United States would be the ones to leave first as enforcement dried up the illegal jobs market.

Once the illegal immigrant population is reduced to a manegable level, a number of possible solutions could be debated for those who remained. Even amnesty would be possible, since the enforcement would have sent the message that new arrivals weren't guaranteed legal status.

It may not sound as nifty as involving local draft boards and American Express in the immigration process. But at least it wasn't as repellent to Hispanic Republicans in Florida as Gingrich expected.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.