political implications of large-scale immigration
Immigration, Political Realignment, and the Demise of Republican Political Prospects
This Backgrounder examines the political implications of large-scale immigration. Between 1980 and 2008, 25.2 million people were granted permanent residency (green cards) by the United States. A comparison of voting patterns in presidential elections across counties over the last three decades shows that large-scale immigration has caused a steady drop in presidential Republican vote shares throughout the country. Once politically marginal counties are now safely Democratic due to the propensity of immigrants, especially Latinos, to identify and vote Democratic. The partisan impact of immigration is relatively uniform throughout the country, even though local Republican parties have taken different positions on illegal immigration. Although high immigration may work against Democratic policy goals, such as raising wages for the poor and protecting the environment, it does improve Democratic electoral prospects. In contrast, immigration may help Republican business interests hold down wages, but it also undermines the party’s political fortunes. Future levels of immigration are likely to be a key determinant of Republicans’ political prospects moving forward.
The electoral impact of immigration has been greatest in counties with large populations, where most immigrants settle. In these locations, Republicans have lost 0.58 percentage points in presidential elections for every one percentage-point increase in the size of the local immigrant population. On average the immigrant share has increased 9.5 percent in these counties.
In counties of at least 50,000, where the immigrant share increased by at least two percentage points from 1980 to 2008, 62 percent saw a decline in the Republican percentage. In counties with at least a four percentage-point increase, 74 percent saw a decline in the GOP vote. In counties with at least a six percentage-point gain in the immigrant share, 83 percent saw a decline in the GOP vote share.
Republicans have remained competitive in presidential elections because losses in high-immigration counties have been offset by steady gains in low-immigration counties.
Even in Texas and Florida, often thought to be an exception, the rising immigrant population across counties is associated with sharply diminished support for Republican candidates.
In Texas, for example, the estimate shows that for every one percentage-point increase in the immigrant population in a county, the Republican vote share dropped by 0.67 percentage points, which is more than the decline nationally association with immigration.
The decline does not seem to be associated with the local Republican Party’s position on illegal immigration.
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Using standard statistical methods, this research has directly estimated the impact of the rising percentage of immigrants across U.S. counties on Republican presidential voting in the eight presidential elections from 1980 to 2008. The conclusion is inescapable and uncomplicated. As the immigrant population has grown, Republican electoral prospects have dimmed, even after controlling for alternative explanations of GOP performance. A typical drop in Republican support in a large metro area county is about six percentage points. In other words, an urban county that cast 49 percent of its vote for the Republican candidate in 1980 could be expected to drop to 43 percent by 2008.
Across all U.S. counties, including many rural counties, the estimated effect of immigration is to drop Republican vote share 1.7 to two percentage points. Even in seemingly remote locations with negligible immigrant populations, the effect is sufficient to move a 51 percent county to a 49 percent county. Aggregated over the large number of counties and viewed through the template of the Electoral College’s winner-take-all system of elections, the impact of immigration is easily sufficient, by itself, to decide many current and future presidential elections.
If we take two roughly comparable elections, 1988 and 2004, as bookends and examine the counties with more than 50,000 people (2004)7 that experienced just a two percentage-point gain or more in the share of the population that is foreign-born, 62 percent of those locations also saw a drop in their Republican vote share between those two contests. Inspecting figures for those counties experiencing a 4 percent or greater gain in the percentage of the population that is foreign-born, 74 percent of those counties witnessed a drop in Republican vote share. Given a 6 percent gain or more in the immigrant share of the population from 1988 to 2004, 83 percent of those counties lost GOP vote share. These comparisons plainly amplify the point that growing immigrant populations have eroded Republican electoral prospects in the vast majority of cities and towns of substantial size.
Ironically, past Republican votes in Congress in favor of a more generous immigration policy have unquestionably bolstered local Democratic majorities, and succeeded in stamping out Republican prospects in once politically competitive locales. This is because Republicans have not converted the legions of Democratic-leaning Latinos who constitute the lion’s share of the immigrant population. Nor can they be expected to win over many Latinos given their weak institutional presence in the locations where new arrivals typically settle. The hope for Republican success with immigrant voters lies mainly with the upward mobility and prosperity of Latinos, Asians, and others, something that will occur only with great difficulty given current levels of low-skill, wage-corrosive immigration.
Republicans are right to want to attract Latino voters. They are indisputably a growing share of the population and the electorate. But expanding the future flow of low-skilled immigrants into an economy ill-suited to promote their upward mobility will clearly be counterproductive given the evidence presented here. At the same time, Republican opposition to higher immigration levels can be too easily typecast as racist and xenophobic. This is because the party’s elites have failed to deliver a clear message that they want a pro-immigrant policy of reduced immigration and that these two goals are complementary. Such a policy would also prove to be the best means for moving immigrants toward the middle and upper income status that will promote their geographic and political mobility.