Senator Ted Cruz, speaking at CPAC.

Op-ed: The Republican tug of war between Hispanics and the Tea Party

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Republican Party needs to support comprehensive immigration reform if it is to become more diverse and attract more Hispanic voters into its coalition. But the GOP may have a tough time bringing the Tea Party along for the ride. New data from a joint survey by Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution shows that Americans who identify with the Tea Party are far more likely than other Republicans to oppose comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship – and that’s not likely to change any time soon. The question is how the Republican Party will manage its current coalition – especially keeping the Tea Party faction happy – with rising pressure to support policies that would bring more diversity to the party.

The last three presidential elections make it plain that the GOP must undertake some serious electoral outreach to Hispanic Americans if it wants to remain a viable major national party. In 2004, President George W. Bush, a supporter of immigration reform and the former governor of Texas, a border state with a large Hispanic population, received the support of 44% of Hispanic voters, more than any other GOP nominee to date. The GOP standard-bearers in 2008 (Arizona Senator John McCain) and 2012 (Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney) saw their Hispanic support plummet to 31% and 27%, respectively. For both Romney and McCain, the issue of immigration is widely considered to be the primary culprit for their lackluster support among Hispanic voters.

Romney’s failure to capture the support of Hispanic Americans seems to have spurred some soul-searching within the GOP establishment, and the party seems prepared to make a more concerted push for Hispanic voters’ support in 2016. Recently, the Republican National Committee publicly embraced comprehensive immigration reform. The Republican rank-and-file also echo this support: according to PRRI’s new survey, a majority (53%) of Republicans now support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.

This effort is complicated by the Tea Party, which carries significant clout among the House GOP and the Republican rank-and-file overall. Currently, between 40 and 50 House Republicans belong to the Tea Party caucus, and approximately 1 in 5 (22%) Republicans say they also identify with the Tea Party. According to the new survey, Tea Party members harbor significant antipathy towards immigrants, and have substantial levels of concern about changes to American culture and way of life. They are, on many of these issues, the polar opposites of Hispanic Americans. For example: 6 in 10 (60%) members of the Tea Party say that the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens American culture. By contrast, more than 6 in 10 (63%) Hispanic Americans say that the growing numbers of newcomers from other countries strengthens American society.

Americans who identify with the Tea Party are also more likely to view the impact of Hispanics on American culture negatively. Tea Party members are significantly more likely to say Hispanics are changing American society for the worse (36%) than to say they are changing it for the better (23%). Not surprisingly, Hispanic Americans strongly disagree.

Beyond these perception challenges, there are serious policy differences between the Tea Party faction of the GOP and Hispanics. Although a majority of Americans (63%) and a majority of Republicans (53%) support a path to citizenship, less than half (45%) of the members of the Tea Party say the same. A majority of Tea Party members say that  undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay as permanent residents but not citizens (16%) or be deported (36%). More than 7 in 10 (71%) of Hispanic Americans favor a path to citizenship. And the policy differences between the Tea Party and Hispanics don’t end with immigration. Even if Republicans pass muster on the threshold issue of immigration, they will still have their work cut out for them to convince Hispanics of the rightness of their positions on a range of issues like raising the minimum wage, gun control, same-sex marriage, health care, and the role of government in society.

In the short run, following the Tea Party may help the GOP’s electoral prospects in primaries and midterms elections where it plays an outsize role.  But failing to engage Hispanics, a fast-growing and younger constituency (only one-quarter of Hispanics are over the age of 50), will seriously undermine the party’s long-term electoral prospects. One thing seems certain from the survey: Republican outreach to Hispanics will face a much more complicated road if Republican Congressional leaders settle on a position that falls well short of a path to citizenship.

Juhem Navarro-Rivera Headshot

Juhem Navarro-Rivera, Research Associate, Public Religion Research Institute

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