Not our people? Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg
Not our people? Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg

"They don't know what's coming." That's what Republican pollster Bill McInturff told the Wall Street Journal this week about the demographic wave threatening to swamp his party. McInturff is enormously respected -- indeed, one of the most highly regarded pollsters in U.S. politics. But in this particular instance, he's wrong. They do know it's coming. In fact, many think it's already here.

In June and July, Latino Decisions conducted a national poll for the Center for American Progress and PolicyLink. The poll's sample was especially large -- 2,943 adults, including 1,319 non-Hispanic whites. In one question, respondents were asked to give their "best guess" about the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. population.

Every racial group overestimated the size of the nonwhite population, which in reality is about 37 percent. "Asians had the most accurate estimates," the survey report stated, "with respondents estimating an average of 43 percent -- followed by whites with an average of 48 percent, Latinos with an average of 50 percent, and African Americans with an average of 53 percent."

It's pretty amazing that blacks, on average, think they are currently living in a nation with a nonwhite majority. (They also have experienced a rising sense of "satisfaction" with their lives despite a brutal recession and its aftermath, which hit blacks especially hard.) But this being a piece about conservatives, the white numbers are the relevant ones.

On average, whites overestimated the nation's minority population by 11 percentage points. Digging a little deeper, the poll showed that 59 percent of conservatives estimated the minority population at 41 percent or higher, with 33 percent of conservatives believing nonwhites account for more than half of the U.S. population, a demographic milestone that is still decades away.

Keep that figure in mind as you consider this result from the same poll report: "Sixty-one percent of white conservatives and 56 percent of whites ages 65 or older agree that discrimination against whites will increase due to rising diversity."

So conservatives think the nation is already either majority or almost-majority nonwhite, and a majority of conservatives believes that they will be discriminated against as the nation becomes more nonwhite.

Great, so who's ready to have that conversation about how Republicans have to pass immigration reform legalizing 11 million more brown people?

Boehner? . . . Boehner? . . . Boehner?

This is the immigration vise in which Republicans find themselves. Through the birth of the Tea Party to Obama phones and Obamacare, fear of losing out to the "47 percent" has pervaded and largely defined conservative politics since President Barack Obama's 2008 election. Much of the conservative base views demographic change as zero sum, with whites on the losing end.

Immigration and race are inexorably linked in American political culture and always have been. As John Higham wrote in his history of American nativism, "Strangers in the Land," American white Protestants considered themselves heirs of "the supreme Anglo-Saxon virtue, a gift for political freedom," which included a "unique capacity for self-government." By muddying the racial composition of the nation, immigration not only jeopardizes white privilege, it risks undermining the foundations of freedom itself.

Racial animosity is only one among several threads of opposition to immigration, of course, including economic rationales rooted in concern for the working class. But race has an especially visceral power. The declining white share of the population already has many conservatives rattled. If it declines more rapidly due to mass legalization of undocumented immigrants, many conservatives figure it can only be bad for them and their vision of the good life.

Republicans cannot continue to thrive as a nearly all-white party. Party strategists know they need to pass immigration reform -- with a legalization (though not necessarily citizenship) component -- to eliminate the first of multiple obstacles to winning Hispanic votes. Yet the House has managed to pass only punitive legislation in this Congress, alienating Republicans further from the voters they desperately need to win.

From outside the conservative bubble, the Republicans' Caucasian march into a multiracial century looks like political malpractice -- terminal short-sightedness or possibly the onset of madness. But resistance is deeply rooted in conservatism. It's clear from House Speaker John Boehner's repeated efforts to bring up immigration reform that he desperately wants to clear the party's path to the future. Trouble is, that future is the stuff of conservative nightmares.

To contact the writer of this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.