Licking their wounds in the wake of the 2012 election—when President Obama took 71 percent of the Latino vote to Mitt Romney’s 27 percent—leading conservatives tried to stay optimistic. Drawing on the authority of Ronald Reagan’s famous pronouncement that “Latinos are Republicans—they just don’t know it yet,” they contended that Obama’s victory among the group was broad but shallow, and could be reversed. On November 8th, Charles Krauthammer proclaimed that the group was in fact “a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example).” A week later, National Review called Hispanics “entrepreneurial and naturally averse to governments that breed economic stagnation” and identified them as “social conservatives” who “are family-oriented, pro-life, and pro-traditional marriage.” In 2013, Arthur Brooks insisted, in the Wall Street Journal, that “it is not true that a conservative message will fail to appeal to Hispanics.” That message can still be heard in the current primary race: as National Review put it earlier this year, Hispanics, with their understanding of “hard work” and “freedom and opportunity,” “remain a community that stresses conservative principles.”
The mildly self-congratulatory tone (who isn’t “averse to governments that breed economic stagnation”?) is a clue that these pieces are designed to soothe jittery nerves at least as much as they’re designed to provide cogent political advice. Nonetheless, expect this line of analysis to flourish over the summer, as nervous conservatives struggle with a response to Donald Trump’s brash, highly effective campaign of nativism. For conservatives, the “cultural argument”—Hispanics are just like us!—serves as a handy rebuttal to the uglier sentiments behind Trump’s appeal. Whereas Trump assumes” that “some” Mexican immigrants “are good people,” the pro-outreach crowd makes its case by playing up Hispanics’ supposed conservatism—and, by extension, their familiarity and goodness.
There’s only one problem: As political analysis, this is probably wrong. Stanford’s Gary Segura, an expert on Latino public opinion and co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions, has written that as a group, Latinos are “increasingly unified and demonstrably left of center.” About Reagan’s famous statement that Latinos are natural Republicans—almost a required incantation in pro-reform op-eds—Segura writes: “How much evidence is there to support this contention? The answer is: somewhere between little and none.” Latinos express more support for government intervention in the economy, higher education spending, and higher environmental spending than do non-Hispanic whites. And although polls reflect their belief in self-reliance, Latinos do not correspondingly support “less government” in the abstract. They’re more skeptical of an unfettered free market than almost any other demographic group. Even their much-touted social conservatism is overblown: Attitudes on gay marriage have liberalized rapidly (a 2013 Pew poll found majority support), and their modestly conservative stance on abortion does not rank as a top priority.
In the wake of these findings, the options for conservatives are grim. One response is to argue that Latinos’ apparent liberalism can be offset by an effective outreach strategy, starting with immigration reform—but there’s no such approach on offer, and opposition to even the idea of treating undocumented immigrants humanely has made a star of Donald Trump. Or, those conservatives who are confident in Latinos’ traditional social views could emphasize issues like marriage—but that would restart discussion of an issue GOP elites would very much like to put behind them. Other conservatives might be tempted to dismiss these worries by noting that neither Latinos nor Hispanics are a monolithic community. On this reasoning, there might still be hope with groups like evangelicals and Cubans. Proponents of that last response, however, can only be unsettled by Segura’s finding that a pan-ethnic Latino identity has emerged in recent years. “Latinos from all groups,” writes Segura, “perceive significant commonality and linked fate with other Latinos, even those expressly from national-origin groups other than their own.” Among other things, this means that attacks on Mexicans may resonate even more widely than Trump’s critics fear.
Segura’s argument suggests that in addition to the obvious electoral difficulties, conservatives may face yet another problem with the rising Latino share of the electorate. If their electoral fear concerns a head-to-head showdown with Democrats, this other problem lies within the GOP’s own ranks. For years, the reformers have attempted to counter hostile anti-immigration sentiments by appealing to natural political and cultural affinity. Perhaps the anti-immigration hardliners, even if they were unswayed by the specter of electoral doom, might come to see Latinos as fellow-conservatives, as traditionalists, as the future of the conservative movement. But what argument will pro-reform conservatives fall back on if it that turns out to be wrong?