Arthur Brooks: The GOP’s Hispanic Opening

By Arthur Brooks

Half the Hispanics eligible to vote don’t. They are the ones most likely to call themselves ‘political conservatives.’

Before Washington was rocked in recent days by an assortment of brewing scandals, immigration reform was at center stage. And immigration reform will surely return shortly to the heart of Washington debates as Congress considers legislation proposed by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and his bipartisan “Gang of 8” colleagues.

Their bill would normalize the status of millions of illegal, mostly Hispanic immigrants. This has stimulated a vigorous debate among conservatives over the cost of reform, mostly in the form of public services for those with low skills and high needs.

For many conservatives, however, the economic debate is really a proxy for the political debate. Few things keep conservative strategists awake at night more than the current trends in Hispanic voting patterns.

Mitt Romney lost the Hispanic vote 71%-27% to Barack Obama. As the Pew Research Center declared in a headline the day after the 2012 election, the “Changing Face of America Helps Assure Obama Victory.” Pew also predicted that while the non-Hispanic white population will decrease from 63% today to 47% in 2050, the Hispanic population will rise over the same period from 17% to 29%.

In some apocalyptic visions, Republicans become a permanent minority through demographic change and the inability to appeal to a population that is inevitably hostile to conservative ideology. Do the math, the warning goes, and even places like Texas start to turn blue. This will only be accelerated by regularizing the status and citizenship of millions of Hispanics in the coming years. As the old saying goes, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. So hit the brakes now on immigration reform.

This political analysis is flawed by two false assumptions. First, it is not true that an increasing Hispanic population means an increasing vote share for Democrats. Second, it is not true that a conservative message will fail to appeal to Hispanics.

According to the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey in 2010, Hispanics vote at far lower frequencies than other racial and ethnic groups. For example, 52% of eligible Hispanics (that is, registered adults who are citizens) voted in the 2008 presidential election, versus 78% of non-Hispanic whites and 79% of blacks. This survey is consistent with many others.

What do we know about the Hispanics who don’t vote? Among other things, they are the ones most likely to call themselves “political conservatives.” Again, according to the 2010 General Social Survey, non-voting Hispanics are 52% more likely than Hispanic voters to label their ideology in this way. In contrast, non-voting whites are 40% less likely than voting whites to call themselves politically conservative. Non-voting Hispanics are also more likely than the voters to express conservative attitudes, such as agreeing that “hard work” is more important than “lucky breaks or help from other people” in getting ahead.

Getting non-voting Hispanics to become voters is more likely to help conservatives than hurt them. But this creates a puzzle: What is suppressing the turnout among all those conservative Hispanics? I believe it is the inability or unwillingness of most conservative politicians to address the issue of primary importance to all groups of Hispanic voters: care for the poor.

Consider the evidence. The 2010 General Social Survey reported that Hispanics are more than a third likelier than non-Hispanics to say that the government should do more to improve standards of living for the needy (39% to 26%). They are 12 percentage points more likely than non-Hispanics to say the government gives “too little assistance to the poor” (74% to 62%).

This is not because Hispanics are poor per se. Controlling for income, as well as age, sex, education, family situation and even political-party affiliation, Hispanics were 16 percentage points more likely than non-Hispanics to say the government should do more to raise the living standards of the poor.

When Hispanics ask Democrats about their plan to help the poor, they hear about massive government programs. When they ask Republicans, they hear the chirping of crickets at best, and talk of “self-deportation” for poor immigrants at worst. For liberal Hispanics, this creates an easy choice and the result is what we see at the polls. For the silent conservative Hispanic base, the right move on Election Day may be to stay home.

The solution, then, is not to derail immigration reform or find some other way to slow down Hispanic political participation. The solution is to make a serious, conservative bid to help the poor and vulnerable.

First, make it clear that the safety net for the indigent and needy is not the source of our fiscal problems. It is the safety net for everyone else—the able-bodied, the middle class, and corporate cronies—that is driving our country to insolvency.

Without real reform of Social Security, Medicare and special-interest public spending, we will have insolvency followed by austerity, and this will hit the poor the hardest (just ask a Spaniard). Spending and entitlement reforms are pro-poor policies.

Second, put education reform in poor communities front and center. Today, students from low-income families are five times as likely to drop out of school as students from high-income families, according to data from the Department of Education. It is a civil-rights scandal that we effectively accept this opportunity-denying status quo. Conservatives must be the warriors for pro-child, pro-parent, pro-innovation and pro-choice education reforms.

Third, we all know that several cultural forces best predict earned success and happiness. With exhaustive evidence in his 2012 best seller “Coming Apart,” Charles Murray shows that these forces are faith, family, community and work. Conservatives are in their natural habitat here and should fight every day to get the government out of the way of a healthy culture for vulnerable American families.

This means ending tax and welfare incentives that discourage marriage and encourage children out of wedlock, rewarding work over unemployment benefits, and a host of other pro-poor policies. Healthy culture should not be the realm of Puritanism but of Good Samaritanism and smart policy.

If they commit to a long-term agenda to help the vulnerable—whether they are Hispanic or from any other group—conservatives have nothing to fear in the changing face of America. On the contrary, it can be the best of times, politically and morally.

Mr. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Road to Freedom” (Basic Books, 2012).

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