In mid to late 2005, we read a number of stories about how immigration would become the main issue in the 2006 election. The suddenness with which these stories all showed up, followed by how quickly the 'anti-illegal immigrant' crew got in gear, seemed to suggest that the decision to make it a focal point of the election was made somewhere in Washington, D.C., not throughout the length and breadth of America.
No matter. Either way, it certainly did become a major issue in 2006, and remains one today. If it was hatched up in some pollster's office during the desperate search for an issue the GOP could run on last year, it is now a monster that the GOP cannot control.
And it's eating them alive.
The right likes to cite polls that suggest that a large majority of Americans want the border secure, while ignoring the simultaneous polls that suggest that far less than a majority favor mass deportation or other action taken against people who are already here doing nothing more than working for a living.
But the issue here isn't how many Americans favor what. It has to do with how many Americans are being pursuaded to vote for the GOP based on their immigrant bashing, versus how many are being pursuaded to vote for Democrats instead.
The basic flaw is that the anti-immigrant strategy was being used as a 'get out the base' strategy, and it hasn't worked for that, as well as not working for broadening their base.
For a few people, being anti-immigrant is almost like a religion. I'm talking about the real nutcakes, the minutemen, the Tom Tancredo backers, and the like. They certainly would never vote for a Democrat. They might turn out to vote for an anti-immigrant hardliner like Tancredo or Randy Graf (or anti-immigrant converts like J.D. Hayworth) but the results of recent elections prove that there just aren't enough of them. Here in Arizona Graf and Hayworth went down to defeat (as did Congressman Henry Bonilla of Texas in another district close to the border) in 2006, and Tancredo's Presidential bid ended when he (like fellow immigration jockey Duncan Hunter) failed to attract more than one or two percent of the vote, and that was of fellow Republicans. Tancredo's most memorable line in the debates was aimed at fellow Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney for their hardline stances on immigration in which he said the pair were 'trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo.' Well, clearly Romney fell flat in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina (and only won his other real contest, Michigan, by pandering instead of discussing much about immigration.) Giuliani should be out of the race come Tuesday when he loses the state he bet all his marbles on, Florida (a state which has a whole lot of immigrants, and would still have a lot even if we didn't count the Cubans.) To put the icing on the cake, the candidate that Republican primary voters seem to favor, John McCain, was a co-sponsor of what the radio jocks teed off on as an 'amnesty bill,' the comprehensive immigration reform bill favored by President Bush which was scuttled by the Senate.
Last year, immigrant-bashing was supposed to be the key issue that would save the Virgnia state Senate for Republicans. It did not, as Democrats picked up four seats, and in a fifth, heavily Republican district the incumbent went on an immigrant-bashing campaign and clearly hurt himself as he hung on by only a few hundred votes in a race he should have won easily.
This year, immigration was supposed to be a huge issue in South Carolina. Not only did McCain win (and Mike Huckabee, who has only sporadically attacked immigrants finish second) but despite the competitive primary, only 445,000 Republicans voted there, which was the same number of Republicans who voted to renominate President George H.W. Bush in 1992 against minor opposition from anti-Semitic speechwriter Pat Buchanan and white supremecist David Duke. That was also the last time that Democrats turned out in the state in larger numbers than Republicans, until today-- when 530,000 people voted in the Democratic primary.
They may be right that a majority of Americans in polls favor some aspects of what they are saying. But they are dead wrong in supposing that is enough to win an election. Not only do some people (both Hispanics and a lot of non-Hispanics) get turned off by all the bashing and the bigotry, but what they've proven is that while there are certainly some zealous and loud anti-immigrant single-issue activists, there aren't enough of them! And worse for the GOP, it is splitting their base (giving conservatives one more reason to refuse to vote for John McCain if he is the nominee, but threatening to drive away a lot of the independents and moderates who supported him and who the GOP really needs if someone else is the Republican nominee.)
Yet some on the right just won't let go, believing that this issue is a 'sure-fire winner' next election, past results notwithstanding. And that's the beauty of conservatives. I remember when the President was refusing to budge on his support for more tax cuts despite the evidence that the tax cuts he had pushed were just not doing the job, and it mirrored his recalcitrance on foreign policy, someone said about conservatives that if they start digging a hole, they will keep on digging it deeper rather than acknowledge they aren't getting anywhere.
Well, Republicans, keep on digging then. You may find half a dozen more survivalists hiding out in an abandoned missile silo in Montana stocked full of all those Y2K rations who will flock to your cause.