Politics

Saving Harry Reid

Democrats are fooling themselves if they believe amnesty saved them. Will they be able to fool Republicans too?

By 11.8.10

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Cheer up, Democrats. The media has already found a silver lining in the ugly cloud known as the 2010 elections. Your party is just one amnesty away from being back in the majority.

That's the moral of a Newsweek story titled "Did Hispanics save Harry Reid?" You don't have to read the whole thing. Gary Segura, a Stanford professor and member of a polling firm called Latino Decisions, helpfully answers the question posed by the headline: "Latinos certainly saved Harry Reid." Others, like Politico's Ben Smith, went further: "Hispanics saved Dems."

Both items and many like them quoted a late survey by Segura's Latino Decisions that purported to show the Senate majority leader winning 90 percent of Nevada's Hispanic vote to Republican Sharron Angle's 8 percent. The more accepted exit poll data showed Reid beating Angle by a still-lopsided but hardly historic margin of 68 percent to 30 percent.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), one of the House's leading boosters of amnesty, says Reid and the Democrats had better get the memo. "Latino citizens responded to Majority Leader Harry Reid's aggressive pursuit of immigration reform by voting for him in overwhelming numbers," he said in a statement. "They were clearly the difference in his victory." And the Republicans had better get on board too: "Neither political party can expect to win the White House without a significant percentage of the Latino vote. And they both know it."

Gutierrez's not-too-subtle point is that Reid should make good on his promise to ram through the DREAM Act during Congress' lame-duck session. Then afterwards, Democrats should embrace the winning issue of "comprehensive immigration reform" in the new Congress. If House Republicans try to stop them, the GOP can forget about the 2012 presidential election since such intransigence will cost them the Latino vote.

There are just a few problems with this newly minted bit of conventional wisdom. First, it is not at all clear that immigration is the main issue driving Hispanics to vote for Democrats -- or that Latino voters are even that wild about amnesty. A Pew Hispanic Center poll released last month showed that only 29 percent of Latinos believed illegal immigration was a positive force for their community, a 21-point drop in three years. Thirty-one percent said it had a negative effect and another 20 percent believed it had no effect.

In a Pew poll taken earlier, registered Hispanic voters listed immigration as the fifth most important issue. Education, jobs, health care, and the budget deficit all ranked higher. At 31 percent, immigration barely finished ahead of the environment and the war in Afghanistan. An older Pew survey found ambivalence even toward legal immigration: in 2002, 48 percent of Hispanics said there were too many immigrants in the United States, 40 percent the right amount, and only 7 percent thought there were too few.

Even if this doesn't sound like the quotes from professional ethnic activists you read in the mainstream media, this really shouldn't be that surprising. Most Hispanics aren't immigrants; they are native-born Americans. Roughly five-eighths of registered Hispanic voters were born in the United States. Many others are legal immigrants. They don't personally benefit from amnesty. At best, their family members do. At worst, so do their economic competitors.

That doesn't that immigration can never be used to rally Hispanics against Republicans. Democrats and La Raza-style activists try to frame immigration-related issues, including amnesty, as a symbol of Hispanics' acceptance in American society. Sometimes, it works: Proposition 187, the famous (in some circles, infamous) California ballot initiative blocking most taxpayer funds from illegal immigrants, won only 23 percent of the Hispanic vote while rolling up a 59 percent landslide statewide. Sometimes, this gambit fails, as when a similar initiative, Proposition 200 in Arizona, was backed by 47 percent of Hispanics.

Republicans help the Democrats' framing of the issue when they produce odd sound bites about Hispanic students looking a little Asian, as Sharron Angle managed to do in her ill-fated campaign against Harry Reid. But George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and the old John McCain reinforce this Democratic messaging too when they also treat Hispanics as a monolithic ethnic bloc for whom amnesty is the defining issue. When Gutierrez says that amnesty is the litmus test of whether a party is pro- or anti-Hispanic, the Bush-Rove-McCain Republicans foolishly agree.

In the short term, Democrats have succeeded in making Arizona's SB 1070 immigration law such a litmus test. They have cast it as a law against "driving while Hispanic," a racial profiling measure in which many legal and native-born Arizonans now fear they will be ensnared. But this only serves to demonstrate the next flaw in the argument that now is the time for the Democrats to revive amnesty: even with that being the case, the supporters of SB 1070 generally won and in some cases won big.

Jan Brewer, the Republican governor who signed SB 1070 into law, won reelection with 55 percent of the vote. The newly rechristened Minuteman McCain did a little better with 59 percent. Sen. Russell Pearce, SB 1070's main sponsor, is about to become president of a state senate with an expanded Republican majority.

Brewer lost the Hispanic vote by 71 percent to 28 percent. But she won 60 percent of Arizona's non-Hispanic white vote. In California, Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman -- who campaigned as an opponent of Arizona-style immigration laws -- didn't do much better than Brewer among Hispanics, winning just 30 percent. (GOP senatorial nominee Carly Fiorina sounded an uncertain trumpet and won exactly the same percentage of the Latino vote as Brewer.)

In Nevada's race for governor, Republican Brian Sandoval beat Harry Reid's son Rory by 53 percent to 41 percent. Sandoval, who is himself Hispanic, did about three points better among Latinos than Angle. But he did nine points better among non-Hispanic whites, taking 62 percent of their votes to Angle's 53 percent. If nothing else, the reality is more complicated than what the Newsweek-style conventional wisdom holds.

This much seems simple: The Democrats are surely fooling themselves if they believe amnesty will be a winning issue for them in 2012. Republicans should avoid being either anti-Hispanic or pro-amnesty. Unless the Democrats succeed in fooling them too.

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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.