By now, just about everyone understands that Republicans have a problem with Hispanic voters. The bigger question now is if a bi-partisan immigration bill will be the cure.
Republicans' low standing with Hispanic voters can't be blamed solely on talk of electrified border fences or "self-deportation" rhetoric. As GOP pollster Jan van Lohuizen wrote in December, Republicans’ "significant image problem among Hispanics… is the same problem as we have with other groups: we are seen as the party of the rich which does not care about the middle class or lower income families." At the RNC meeting in Charlotte last week, GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal blamed his party's poor standing in the 2012 campaign on the fact that "we didn't connect our policies to average middle class families."
Immigration reform is a "threshold issue": without it, Republicans can't get past the threshold and into the living rooms of Hispanic Americans. But, in order to be invited to stay in their homes and in their lives, Republicans need to be able to convince these voters that they understand and empathize with the issues that are the most pressing to them.
However, some of the most basic tenants of GOP ideology are unappealing to the majority of Hispanics. As Washington Post reporters Aaron Blake and Sean Sullivan noted, a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey taken last summer found that 67 percent of Hispanics said they favor a “larger federal government with many services” over a “smaller federal government with fewer services.” Republicans expressed a dramatically different viewpoint in the poll, with 80 percent saying they prefer a “smaller federal government with fewer services.”
In the same poll, Blake and Sullivan report, 68 percent of Hispanics said it is more important to “increase federal spending to try to create jobs and improve the economy” than to avoid “a big increase in the federal deficit.” Seventy-three percent of Republicans said the latter is more important.
Education, said Republican pollster van Lohuizen, is one issue that resonates with Hispanic voters and also tracks with GOP orthodoxy. For example, school reform that uses accountability and results, not money spent, as the metrics for success. (see: Bush, Jeb).
Republicans also can't afford to let this immigration issue be the one and only way they interact with Hispanic voters. Like the spouse who receives a bunch of cellophane wrapped flowers from CVS on Valentine's Day, voters know when politicians are simply phoning it in. Republican strategists have stressed the importance of recruiting Hispanic candidates and going to events, parades, and neighborhoods where Republicans don't traditionally show up. As one GOP strategist told me, we have to realize that we can't just send a piece of mail in Spanish and think that's enough to win their votes.
Republicans don't need to win 100 percent of these voters, or even 50 percent. Instead, it is about holding onto at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally, and, more important, not allowing the newest generation of Hispanic voters to write off the GOP completely.
The bigger issue for the GOP, however, may be bringing their base along with them.
The most recent ABC/Washington Post polling showed that while 57 percent of Americans favored a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, including 82 percent of Hispanics and 59 percent of independents, just 37 percent of Republicans agreed with that sentiment.
Sen. Marco Rubio has been able to placate the most influential voices on the right, such as conservative talk radio types like Rush Limbaugh. And, there has been no real organized effort from among conservatives to defeat it.
Even so, there are plenty of Republicans who don't trust the White House or Democrats to negotiate in good faith. One Republican with close ties to GOP conservatives told me, "It would surprise me if the White House and Senate Democrats hand the GOP an antidote to their problems." The most paranoid among them assume that Democrats are simply trying to string Republicans long enough to pull the rug out from under them.
That fear, along with questions of how a vote for immigration legislation will play out a year - or three years - from now is also likely weighing on the minds of plenty of rank-and-file Republicans.
For now, however, the GOP has little choice but to do whatever they can to repair the very real damage they have done to their brand with Hispanic voters. Until, and unless they do, winning the White House will be out of reach.