Donald Trump’s new campaign ad covers old material. He wants to “make America great again” and immigrants are standing in the way. The Republican presidential hopeful says that we should ban Muslims, wall off Mexico and deport our way to prosperity. Such talk has brought Mr. Trump large crowds on the campaign trail and kept him leading in the polls, but GOP strategists who know their history are worried that it could backfire big time.
The television spot includes aerial footage of migrants scurrying across a border, and it has drawn comparisons to very similar ads run in the early 1990s by California’s then-Gov. Pete Wilson, another Republican moderate with presidential ambitions who became an immigration hard-liner out of political expediency.
Mr. Wilson, who was first elected in 1990, signed a large tax increase that infuriated conservatives and damaged his poll numbers. Eager to change the subject as he began campaigning for a second term, the governor became a vocal supporter of Proposition 187, a referendum that denied illegal aliens and their children access to schools and health care. The referendum passed (though it was later gutted by the courts) and Mr. Wilson won re-election, but the victory turned out to be shallow, while the subsequent political damage ran much deeper.
Mr. Wilson’s support among Hispanics was 47% in 1990. Four years later it was 25%, and ethnic voting patterns would run against Republicans for another decade. The party lost state assembly seats for three successive elections. Mr. Wilson’s would-be GOP successor, Dan Lungren, carried only 17% of the Hispanic vote just eight years after Mr. Wilson had won close to half of it.
Nationally, what was once a stronghold state for Republicans became easy pickings for Democrats. Between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won California in nine of 10 presidential elections, but Democrats have won the state in the past six contests. The 1996 Republican presidential candidate, Bob Dole, won only 6% of California’s Hispanic vote, compared with former Gov. Ronald Reagan’s 35% in 1980 and 45% in 1984. Republicans held half of California’s U.S. House seats in 1994. Today they hold 26%, and their U.S. Senate candidates regularly lose.
It seems lost on Donald Trump that demographic trends that have played out in California over the past quarter-century are no longer unique to the Golden State. But it behooves Republicans to recognize these patterns and adjust their rhetoric accordingly. Today, more minority babies than white babies are born in the U.S. each year. “The shift toward a nation in which no racial group is the majority” is already taking place,” writes demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution in his book, “Diversity Explosion.” “In 2010, 22 of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas were minority white, up from just 14 in 2000 and 5 in 1990.”
Part of the problem in California was that the GOP’s perceived animosity toward Hispanics gained notice from other nonwhite voting blocs, which led to a drop in support among the Chinese and Koreans who had a history of voting Republican. The decision to double down on white voters in a state that was becoming less white haunts the party to this day.
Pete Wilson never made it to the White House, but he might have, had California taken the immigration approach of another large and diverse state. As governor of Texas, George W. Bush denounced Proposition 187, welcomed Latino immigrants, portrayed his party as racially and ethnically inclusive and rode a big-tent strategy all the way to the Oval Office. Twice.
Mr. Bush won more than 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004, yet eight years later Mitt Romney would win only 27% of this fast-growing group—a percentage that Mr. Trump apparently thinks is far too high. Recent history shows that Hispanics are swing voters in national elections who have been driven into the arms of Democrats over the past decade because GOP rhetoric has made them feel unwanted. The question isn’t why they don’t vote Republican so much as why so many have stopped voting Republican.
Shared values and ideals, rather than shared backgrounds, are what makes America so desirable to immigrants. Conservatives rightly denounce the identity politics practiced by liberals, and Mr. Trump shouldn’t get a pass.
It’s no great shock that race relations have plummeted under President Obama, who reflexively sides with black crime suspects and police protesters when he’s not dismissing his political opponents as bigots. Donald Trump’s determined desire to add ethnic and religious tensions to the mix won’t help matters and could do great harm to the party he hopes to lead. We need less demagoguery out of Washington, and presidents set the tone.
Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Journal contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed” (Encounter Books, 2014).