As San Bernardino County becomes increasingly Latino, the political fortunes of the Republican Party have dimmed.
While the percentage of immigrants in the county has more than doubled over the past three decades, the share of the Republican vote in presidential elections has continued to drop, according to a new study.
“The immigrant influx in California has politically realigned the state,” said the study’s author, James Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. “There’s no question that the very, very large volume of international migrants in Southern California counties has altered the political complexion of the state to favor the Democratic Party.”
In 1980, less than 8 percent of San Bernardino County residents were born outside the United States. By 2008, that figure topped 18 percent.
At the same time, the percentage of the county electorate voting Republican in presidential elections declined from nearly 60 percent in 1980 to less than 46 percent in 2008.
The same trend is occurring across the nation in counties with large populations where most immigrants settle, Gimpel said.
Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, agreed with Gimpel’s analysis.
“Immigration has not been a political asset to Republicans,” Pitney said. “They have the difficult political challenge of threading a political needle. On the one hand, supporting a strong fight against illegal immigration. But on the other hand, supporting measures to sustain legal immigration, particularly of skilled workers.”
Pitney said Republicans have little to gain by backing immigration reform proposals that provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
“It just doesn’t make political sense,” Pitney said. “Latinos are not going to flock to the Republicans even if they support amnesty, but the Republican base will be alienated.”
In California, it hasn’t been easy for Republicans to overcome the legacy of Proposition 187, a ballot measure approved by voters in 1994 that cut off public services to illegal immigrants but was overturned by the courts.
Analysts say the harsh rhetoric used to promote the initiative turned off many Latino voters, harming the party’s efforts to win their support in future elections.
Two Hispanic candidates romped to victory in Republican congressional runoffs last week, just a little more than a month after Texas’ highest-ranking Hispanic officeholder blamed his GOP primary loss on bias against Hispanics.
The conflicting election results highlight the GOP’s uneven results in fostering successful Hispanic candidates over the years, despite repeated efforts to do so as a way of reaching out to the fast-growing demographic.
Political experts say the GOP has had two recurring problems: inconsistency in its courtship of Hispanics and occasional setbacks from problems such as inflammatory rhetoric on immigration.
But on the heels of Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo’s loss to an unknown opponent last month, the congressional runoff victories by Bill Flores in Central Texas and Francisco “Quico” Canseco in South Texas complicate the question of whether Republicans can regularly win Hispanic votes.
A majority of Hispanics, particularly in the Southwest, have long voted for and identified with the Democratic Party. Exit polls from the 2008 presidential election showed that about two-thirds of Latinos in the country voted for Barack Obama, and polling by the Pew Hispanic Center shows consistent majority Hispanic support for Democrats over the last decade.
That doesn’t mean Hispanics are a static voting bloc. Political experts said George W. Bush was especially effective as a governor in reaching out to conservative Hispanics in Texas, and a recent poll commissioned by a national group of Hispanic legislative leaders showed that many Hispanics identify themselves as conservatives, especially on social issues.
“The Latino population today is not the same as it was in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Sylvia Manzano, an expert on Latino politics at Texas A&M University. “The composite parts are different. So Latinos don’t necessarily have the frame of reference that they owe a loyalty or some indebtedness to a particular party.”
It’s difficult to prove what role ethnicity played in the victories by congressional candidates Flores and Canseco, who beat non-Hispanic opponents in GOP runoffs Tuesday.
GOP Is for Me
As Flores and Canseco face tough general election contests against incumbent Democrats Chet Edwards and Ciro Rodriguez, others across Texas are trying to spread a Hispanic brand of conservatism from the ground up. Duke Machado, president of a group called GOP Is for Me, is encouraging the creation of Hispanic Republican Clubs throughout the state.
Machado said that there are certainly still people who are uncomfortable voting for a Hispanic politician but that a victory such as Flores’ proves voters don’t base decisions solely on ethnicity.
“It’s not in the name,” Machado said. “It’s in the person. They voted for him because he provided solutions.”