Slick politics or undeniable demographics? Photographer: Will McNamee/Getty Images
Slick politics or undeniable demographics? Photographer: Will McNamee/Getty Images

Speaking at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation Fiscal Summit last week, former President Bill Clinton said that passing immigration reform would enable Republicans to win more Hispanic votes -- positioning them "net ahead."

Anti-immigrant forces will no doubt attribute the claim to slick politics by a man who hopes to see his wife carried to the presidency aloft millions of Hispanic votes. But this has been the basic Republican political argument in favor of immigration reform from the start, stated in various ways by Jeb Bush, Karl Rove and others. It's pretty straightforward: Having seen their share of the Hispanic vote decline dramatically between 2004 and 2012, Republicans need immigration reform to break down the resistance of Hispanic voters, enabling Republicans once again to court a large and rapidly growing voter bloc.

Is this actually true?

Here is a Latino Decisions polling report from March, 2013:

Our poll asked Latino voters if they would be more or less likely to vote Republican if the GOP took a leadership role in passing comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. Overall 44% say they are more likely to vote Republican, with only 8% less likely. In November 2012 when we asked the exact same question, 31% said they would be more likely to vote Republican.

The poll also found that 43 percent of Latinos who voted for Barack Obama said they would be more likely to vote Republican in the future if Republicans take a lead role in immigration reform.

Voters are not always the shrewdest predictors of their future behavior (think back to 2011, when Herman Cain led the Republican presidential primary field). Feelings change. President George W. Bush's share of the Hispanic vote in 2004 was about 50 percent higher than Mitt Romney's share in 2012, helping Bush to win Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia. (Romney lost every one while losing the Hispanic vote nationwide to Obama by two-to-one.)

In the 1890s, the Republican Party muted its nativist wing to appeal to immigrant voters, and prospered. It might be a tougher challenge this time around. "There can be swift moves," said political scientist Norman Ornstein, citing the movement of black voters to Democrats after passage of the Civil Rights Act. But Ornstein doesn't think immigration legislation, should it pass, has a similar power. "The immigration bill is a necessary but far from a sufficient condition for Republicans even to begin to compete for a group of voters where the main message is still, 'We don't really like your kind.'"

Romney's performance may not even have marked an electoral bottom. "It can get worse for them," e-mailed Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a pro-immigration think tank with Democratic roots. "The Affordable Care Act may end up affecting more Hispanics than comprehensive immigration reform." Meanwhile, Republicans constantly risk being identified with hostile rhetoric from anti-immigrant party members such as Representative Steve King of Iowa. Hispanics have also grown more liberal on social issues and generally support government services more than fiscal retrenchment. (Whether this results from an ideological evolution or simply from Hispanics identifying more closely with the Democratic Party is an open question.)

It's impossible to know how quickly Republicans would be able to reset the electoral table in the unlikely event they do pass immigration legislation. The promised vote windfall may not materialize quickly. But the argument for trying will not get any less compelling over time: 50,000 Hispanic citizens turn 18 every month.

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.