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Immigration's Impact on Republican Political Prospects, 1980 to 2012

James Gimpel is a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. This is an updated version of a previous CIS Backgrounder published in 2010.

This Backgrounder examines the partisan political implications of large-scale immigration. A comparison of voting patterns in presidential gop-redelections across counties over the last three decades shows that mass immigration has caused a steady drop in presidential Republican vote shares, particularly in the nation's largest counties. Each one percentage-point increase in the immigrant share of a large county's population reduces the Republican share of the two-party vote by nearly 0.6 percentage points on average.

Three key conclusions emerge from this analysis:

  • First, the enormous flow of legal immigrants in to the country — 29.5 million 1980 to 2012 — has remade and continues to remake the nation's electorate in favor of the Democratic Party.
  • Second, the partisan impact of immigration is relatively uniform throughout the country— from California to Texas to Florida — even though local Republican parties have taken different positions on illegal immigration. The decline does not seem to vary with the local Republican Party's position on illegal immigration.
  • Third, if legal immigration levels remain at the current levels of over one million a year, it will likely continue to undermine Republicans' political prospects moving forward. Further, if the substantial increases in legal immigration in Senate's Gang of Eight bill (S.744) were to become law it would accelerate this process. Conversely, lowering the level of legal immigration in the future would help stem the decline in the Republican vote.
Three related findings help explain why immigration reduces the Republican vote:

  • Immigrants, particularly Hispanics and Asians, have policy preferences when it comes to the size and scope of government that are more closely aligned with progressives than with conservatives. As a result, survey data show a two-to-one party identification with Democrats over Republicans.
  • By increasing income inequality and adding to the low-income population (e.g. immigrants and their minor children account for one-fourth of those in poverty and one-third of the uninsured) immigration likely makes all voters more supportive of redistributive policies championed by Democrats to support disadvantaged populations.
  • There is evidence that immigration may cause more Republican-oriented voters to move away from areas of high immigrant settlement leaving behind a more lopsided Democrat majority.

Introduction

How has the growth of the immigrant population changed the political party leanings in the places immigrants have settled? The answer to this question is of considerable interest to academic specialists, journalists, interest groups, and political parties engaged in the immigration policy debate. If the impact of mass immigration is politically inert there is no reason to be concerned that constituencies will change appreciably by the settlement and naturalization of new arrivals. In that case, immigration might have economic and cultural impacts that should be anticipated, but no one need be concerned about political shifts.

On the other hand, if immigration does change the politics of locales, districts, and even entire states, then what might those changes entail? Certainly one important implication will be a resultant public shift toward favoring governmental activism — a belief that government should do more, rather than less. Latino voters, for instance, are presently among the demographic groups that are most strongly behind an activist government. This is undoubtedly because they are, on balance, lower income, and concentrate in areas monopolized by Democratic Party politics into which they are routinely socialized.

Observers have witnessed the concurrent surge in California's immigrant population, fueled mostly by the relocation of less educated Mexicans, along with its rising Democratic Party majority, especially in presidential elections.1 Recent studies of Latino party identification have shown that those of Mexican origin and occupying the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder are especially likely to identify with the Democratic Party (Alvarez and Garcia-Bedolla 2003, 40). Remarkably, Latinos in California appear to vote overwhelming Democratic even when Republican Latino candidates are on the ballot opposing Anglo Democrats (Michelson 2005). Abel Maldonado (R) lost the Latino vote in the 2010 lieutenant governor's race against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (D). Earlier efforts, in 1998 and 2002, by the California GOP to nominate Latino candidates for statewide office were also unsuccessful.2 In Texas in 2012, estimates suggested that the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, Paul Sadler, won the Latino vote over Republican Ted Cruz by a 60-40 percent margin.3 In Nevada, Republican Brian Sandoval was elected governor in 2010, carrying just 33 percent of the Latino vote.

It is not surprising, then, that the nation's sustained flow of lower-skilled immigrants, largely from Latin America, has given rise to predictions of an emerging Democratic Party majority by a variety of studious onlookers (Judis and Teixeira 2002; Campbell 2008; Arnoldy 2008; Segura 2012; Taylor, Gonzalez-Barrera, Passel, and Lopez 2012). After all, the propensity for immigrants, and especially Latinos, to be swing voters has been greatly exaggerated by wishful-thinking Republican politicians and business-seeking pollsters who refuse to acknowledge the stability of individual party identification (Green, Palmquist, and Schickler 2002). Entrenched patterns of party loyalty change very slowly, over decades, and are not ordinarily subject to wild swings in response to campaign stimuli. Nevertheless, the rise of a durable Democratic Party dominance in California and elsewhere has more than a single source, and it is always questionable just how much this partisan realignment can be attributed to immigration. itical mobility.

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