Three of the Republican presidential candidates are sons of immigrants. Marco Rubio's parentshis father a bartender, his mother a maidcame from Cuba. The parents of Bobby Jindal emigrated from India, his father an engineer, his mother a student who later earned two master's degrees. Ted Cruz's father is an evangelical pastor from Cuba, his mother an American citizen. Cruz himself, a citizen from birth, was born in Canada.
The three candidates became success stories at a relatively early age. Rubio was 39 when elected to the Senate from Florida. Jindal won the Louisiana governorship at 36. Cruz was 43 when he captured a Senate seat in Texas. Democrats have nothing that comes close to matching this.
Yet Republicans have failed to package the three to draw attention to their immigrant "narrative," says GOP consultant Marc Rotterman. They show that "we're the party of upward mobility," he says. "It's not the Democrats." It's a positive narrative likely to appeal to immigrant voters.
But forget that. It's an anti-immigrant theme that now dominates the Republican presidential race and GOP politics in general. Sadly, it's a theme far more likely to hurt the party's chances in the 2016 election than help, notably in winning Hispanic support.
Indeed, the strategy embraced by a large segment of Republicans is all but certain to alienate Hispanic voters. It consists of running against what Hispanics see as their interests, rather than courting Hispanics as a critical voting bloc. This is a political mistake, since Hispanics are expected to make up 9 or 10 percent of the 2016 electorate.
Donald Trump is not entirely responsible for this, but his intemperate attacks on illegal immigrants have had an enormous impact. Plus, his remarks have been exploited by Democrats and the media, especially Spanish-language talk show hosts.
In stepping up his attacks, Trump has called for deporting the 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants herean estimated 70 percent of them are from Mexico and Latin America. He has also hinted he'd like to reduce legal immigration. And he's eager to repeal "birthright" citizenship for those born in America of illegal immigrant parents.
The effect of these attacks on Hispanics is significant. They pay close attention to issues touching their community. They know about Trump's denunciations and the enthusiastic response to him by millions of people, especially on the birthright issue.
To many Hispanics, the rise of the birthright issue suggests they're unwelcome in the United States. Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Lindsey Graham were among presidential candidates in agreement with Trump, who said automatic citizenship provided in the Fourteenth Amendment "remains the biggest magnet for illegal immigration." Cruz said on the Michael Medved radio show that ending the right would be "difficult," since it would require a constitutional amendment.
Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich dissented, as did Scott Walker after wavering for a week. "I'm open to doing things that prevent people who deliberately come to the U.S. for purposes of taking advantage of the Fourteenth Amendment, but I'm not in favor of repealing it," Rubio said. Bush called birthright citizenship a "noble concept."
Kasich, once an opponent, said the issue should go away. "Let these people who are born here be citizens and that's the end of it," he said on CNN. "I don't want to dwell on it."
For all the hot rhetoric, the Trump ascendancy has raised questions about the strategic importance of the Hispanic vote. For one thing, Gallup and other pollsters found that while Hispanics dislike Trump overwhelmingly, this hasn't tainted the other Republican candidates, at least yet. Bush, Trump's chief Republican foe, has gained in favorability from plus 1 in July to plus 22 in August.
Hillary Clinton has revealed how Democrats will deal with Republicans who differ from Trump: They'll link every Republican to Trump anyway. "These days, there's not much daylight between Jeb Bush and his Republican colleagues when it comes to immigration," she said in a statement.
Another question: Do Republicans need at least 40 percent of the growing Hispanic vote to win the presidency next year? I think the answer is yes, as a study by Latino Decisions, a Hispanic polling group, found. That's also the view of pollster Whit Ayres, author of 2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America. It's "new" because non-whites make up a bigger share of the electorate than ever.
But those in Trump's orbit, at least regarding Hispanics, point to an analysis by Nate Cohen of the New York Times. Republicans "do not necessarily need significant gains among Hispanic voters to win the presidency," he wrote. The GOP share fell from 44 percent for George W. Bush in 2004 to 27 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012.
So Republicans can ignore Hispanics, as Romney did, and still have a path to victory. "But it's just a harder one," Cohn noted. It's a gamble based on getting more white votes. A more sensible approach is to go after Hispanic voters, as successful Republican Senate candidates did in last year's midterm election.
There's no trick to it. You treat Hispanic voters much like white voters. You become a presence in their community. You organize. You show respect. You take up their concerns. You endorse some form of immigration reform that doesn't have to include a road to citizenship. You appear in campaign ads on Spanish-speaking media.
The test in 2016 will be in Florida, a must-win state for the Republican presidential nominee. Romney came close, losing 49-50 percent by maxing out on the white vote. But there are more Hispanics now. Puerto Ricans are pouring in from their bankrupt homeland, and they have the right to vote. They normally vote Democratic but are persuadable. "Republicans have an opportunity," says Alfonso Aguilar of the American Principles Project.
They better seize it.