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Giancarlo Sopo Headshot

Republicans' Electoral (Mis)Calculations on Immigration Reform

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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg via Getty Images

There's a prevailing school of thought in GOP circles currently underwriting much of the opposition to immigration reform that supporting the measure would lead to the demise of the Republican Party. It's wrong.

The reasoning looks something like this:

1. There are 11 million undocumented Hispanics in the United States;

2. Immigration reform would create 11 million new Hispanic voters;

3. The overwhelming majority of Hispanics voters vote Democratic;

4. Ergo, immigration reform is a nail in the Republican Party's coffin.

On the surface, I can see how this argument appears reasonable. A closer look at the supporting "facts" though, and the conclusion falls apart.

Let's look at the argument:

1. True: There are in fact 11 million undocumented people living in the United States, the vast majority of which are of Hispanic/Latino descent.

2. False: Immigration reform will lead to 11 million new Hispanic voters.

First, to register to vote you must first be a U.S. citizen and there is ample evidence showing that a significant number of Hispanic immigrants choose not to become citizens.

A nationwide 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of legal immigrants from Mexico (who account for the majority of the country's undocumented immigrants) decide not to become citizens.

"Well, Giancarlo, what about non-Mexican immigrants?" I'm glad you asked. The same Pew study found that 68 percent of non-Mexican immigrants choose not to obtain their citizenship.

Furthermore, in 2010, the Department of Homeland Security released a study on the naturalization rates of immigrants who benefited from the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Among its findings was that only about 40 percent of the 2.1 million undocumented immigrants became naturalized.

Therefore, we can reasonably conclude that if immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship were signed into law, we could expect that in an unlikely scenario of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants as many as 7.5 million (68 perecnt) could choose to become United States citizens in over a decade. However, if past trends were to continue, that number would be closer to 3.63 million to 4.4 million (33 percent to 40 percent).

Second, it's important to note that not all Hispanic citizens register to vote. A 2013 Gallup study found that just a little more than half (51 percent) of eligible Hispanic citizens even register to vote.

If you believe that of the 11 million undocumented immigrants 68 percent (7.5 million) will choose to become citizens, then U.S. voter rolls will experience an increase of 3.8 million new Hispanic voters in over 10 years from now. However, the likelier scenario where only 40 percent to 33 percent of undocumented immigrants will become citizens means that out of the 11 million undocumented immigrants, only 2.2 million to 1.9 million will register to vote.

In other words, whether you're bullish or bearish about the number of undocumented immigrants who will actually become citizens, only a fraction of the 11 million will ever register to vote.

Third, just because someone registers to vote, it doesn't mean that they will exercise their franchise. In 2008, only 50 percent of eligible Hispanic voters cast ballots. The same was true in 2012 where only 48 percent cast a ballot. Thus, assuming only 50 percent of registered Hispanic voters cast a ballot and that this pattern holds in the future, then immigration reform would result in an growth of approximately 950,000 to 1.9 million to Hispanics participating in elections that will take place over a decade from now.

3. Mostly True: The majority of Hispanics do vote Democratic, but it can get worse for Republicans if they do not pass immigration reform.

In the nine presidential elections since 1980, Hispanics voted an average of 64 percent of the time for the Democratic candidate. President Jimmy Carter received the lowest share with just 56 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1980 and President Clinton's re-election marked the high water mark with 72 percent of the vote. Conversely, the Republican presidential candidate has averaged 31 percent of the Hispanic vote since 1980 (with independent candidates obtaining an average of 5 percent).

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign was the highpoint for Republicans with Hispanic electors where 40 percent marked GOP on their ballots. Only 21 percent of Hispanic voters cast a ballot for Senator Dole in 1996.

Within the context of the potential impact of immigration reform on the American electorate, this means that based on historical averages, approving the measure would lead to as many as 1.2 million new Hispanic Democratic voters (in the unlikely 68 percent citizenship model). The likeliest electoral outcome of immigration reform in terms of voter registration preferences of the newly naturalized immigrants equates to somewhere between 608,000 to 704,000 new Hispanic Democratic voters in over a decade.

The number of newly naturalized Hispanics who would cast ballots in support of Republican presidential candidates ranges from from as high as 589,000, but likeliest to range somewhere between 304,000 to 341,000 new Republican voters. Hence, the net Democratic gain in Hispanic electors may be as high as 611,000, or in more realistic scenarios ranges to a gain of 363,000 to 304,000 votes.

This is a significant number, but it's also significantly less than 11 million.

4. False: Immigration reform is a nail in the GOP's coffin.

While hundreds of thousands of new Hispanic citizens registering to vote as a result of immigration reform is a significant electoral development, it shouldn't preclude the GOP from winning the White House considering that the likeliest net gain for Democrats is only about 304,000 to 363,000 votes. The last time that an American election was decided by such a slim margin was over 50 years ago (1960) and before that it was in 1892. So, unless Republicans fear that Richard Nixon and Benjamin Harrison will resurrect from their graves to claim the party's mantle, they shouldn't fear immigration reform.

I would argue that Republicans are far likelier to improve their electoral standing among Hispanic voters if they were to support immigration reform than if they were to continue (with some exceptions, such as Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and others) opposing it.

Consider that a striking 43 percent of the nine million Hispanic voters who supported President Obama in 2012 said in a recent poll that they would be more likely to support the GOP if it took a leadership role in passing immigration reform. That amounts to a potential persuadable universe of 3.87 million Hispanic Democratic voters who would consider casting a ballot for the GOP today if they supported immigration reform. That's six times the number of votes Democrats would net in a decade by passing immigration reform. Conversely, 33 percent (or 1.1 million) of the 3.4 million Hispanics who voted for Governor Romney in 2012 said they would be less likely to support the GOP in future elections if it were to block immigration reform.

Clearly, in clearly electoral terms, opposing immigration reform is a losing proposition for Republicans among Hispanic voters. Under the worst-case scenarios, the chances for massive electoral losses as a result of supporting reform appear to be remote and mitigated by several important factors. Meanwhile, the opportunities for electoral gains are far greater and likelier.

Even though immigration reform is likelier to produce electoral benefits than disadvantages for Republicans, I don't expect the GOP to embrace reform for several reasons. As Professors Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky noted in their award-winning research leading to what we know today as Prospect Theory, humans tend to be risk-seeking when it comes to losses, but risk-averse when it comes to gains. Also, none of my preceding arguments account for any potential erosion of support from non-Hispanic voters if Republicans were to support immigration reform. Though, I can't imagine many voters who would be disenchanted by Republicans for supporting immigration reform to then flock to the Democratic Party. If they were to stay home, I'm certain that the Republican Party can conceive of ways to drive up turn-out.

As a Democrat, I can appreciate the argument that immigration reform would lead to a permanent majority for my party, but that's just not the case. Putting aside the inescapable conclusion that immigration reform will not result in the demise of the GOP or any other electoral arguments, I believe Republicans should join us in supporting immigration reform because it is the right thing to do. In the final analysis, 11 million people should not be condemned to permanent second-class citizenry due to the political (mis)calculations of a few.