LOS ANGELES, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush's new immigration initiative is surprisingly more liberal than the trial balloon that he floated in July 2001 suggesting amnesty for some Mexican illegal aliens and that ran into heavy weather among Republican congressmen even before 9/11.
According to senior administration officials, the new plan includes a de facto amnesty for undocumented workers and their dependents; a new temporary worker program to bring in more immigrants; and an expansion in the number of green cards to put more immigrants on the road to permanent residency, citizenship and voting.
It raises questions about what political benefits the Republican president's senior adviser Karl Rove hopes to gain by proposing such an expansive plan at a time of relatively high unemployment (5.9 percent in November).
The conventional answer is: "To increased the GOP's share of the crucial Hispanic population of swing voters." The influential Washington Post, for example, has repeatedly cited a 2001 quote from Bush pollster Matthew Dowd claiming, "As a realistic goal, we have to get somewhere between ... 38 (percent) to 40 percent of the Hispanic vote" in 2004, compared to the estimated 35 percent Bush earned in 2000.
Although Latinos are often described as "swing voters," their actual performance has been quite stable relative to non-Hispanic whites. In House elections since 1980, the GOP has always performed between 19 and 28 percentage points worse among Hispanics than among whites.
Unlike African-Americans, the GOP's popularity among Hispanics generally rises and falls in the same cycles found among whites. For example, the GOP House candidates' best election among Latinos, according to the now discontinued New York Times exit poll, was Newt Gingrich's big year of 1994, when Republican House candidates picked up 39 percent of the Hispanic vote.
In 2002, according to Voter News Service exit poll data analyzed by United Press International, the GOP House candidates won 38 percent of the Latino vote, up from 35 percent in 2000. Yet, because the GOP's white fraction rose by 4 points, despite two years of the administration's attempts to appeal to Hispanics, the gap between Hispanics and whites grew from to 20 points to 21 points.
Further, many Hispanic voters aren't enthusiastic about increased immigration. An October 2002 Pew Hispanic Center poll of registered Hispanic voters found that 48 percent said there are too many immigrants in this country vs. 7 percent who said there are too few.
The direct benefit to the Bush re-election campaign of winning 38 percent or 40 percent of Hispanics rather than 35 percent is not large. Although Hispanics comprise 13 percent of the population, their weight in the electorate is only about half as great. In November 2000, the Census Bureau's phone survey of 50,000 households found that Hispanics cast 5.4 percent of all votes. The smaller Voter News Service exit poll found Hispanics making up 6.5 percent of voters.
As has been universally noted, the importance of Hispanics is growing. In the authoritative Census surveys, the total Latino vote swelled from 3.6 percent in 1988 to 5.4 percent in 2000. That extrapolates out to about 6 percent or slightly higher in 2004.
Thus, if Bush boosts his share of the Hispanic vote from 35 percent to
40 percent, and Hispanics cast six percent of the votes in 2004, then Bush will gain 0.3 percentage points overall.
In contrast, non-Hispanic whites accounted for 81 percent of the vote in 2000 and 82 percent in the midterm 2002 elections. On his way to losing the popular vote in 2000, Bush won 54 percent of the white vote. In contrast, his father easily defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988 by winning the votes of 59 percent of whites. If the younger Bush could raise his white share by 5 points in 2004, his total would go up by a substantial 4 points.
Rove is better with numbers than most journalists, so he has probably done similar calculations showing the importance of white voters.
Rove's biographers James C. Moore and Wayne Slater quoted an illuminating 1985 memo that Rove wrote to his Texas gubernatorial candidate Bill Clements that might shed light on his electoral strategy behind the new amnesty plan: "The purpose of saying you gave teachers a record pay increase is to reassure suburban voters with kids, not to win the votes of teachers. Similarly, emphasizing your appointments of women and minorities will not win you the support of feminists and the leaders of the minority community; but it will bolster your support among Republican primary voters and urban independents."
Similarly, Rove might see boosting immigration as a way to attract moderate white voters who like to think of themselves as tolerant and pro-diversity.