On June 27, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill 68 to 32. This was a laudable accomplishment in itself, but it is also an interesting foray into political science. While the underlying problems with the current system have languished for years, the impetus for this effort has been 2012 election. After the results and exit surveys revealed the GOP’s long-term demographic problem: the party’s supporters skew towards white and older voters who are, respectively, shrinking as a share of the population and dying. It’s not just that they lost; it is that if nothing changes, the GOP will be less competitive every year. This concern for the future motivated Senate Republicans to actually sit down with Democrats and hammer out a bill that included a “path to citizenship” for undocumented residents.

All of this is well-known and publicly stated by Republicans, e.g. in this RNC report. I am curious though, how Republicans expect their role in this bill will help resolve their electoral problems. We can think of this as an exercise in coalition development, or a form of brand management.

Coalition Development

Coalition development occurs when a party works to bring a segment of the population into its coalition. Classic strategies include:

  • nominating candidates from that group 
  • targeting campaign efforts at the group using group-specific messaging and media
  • funding community outreach and voter turnout efforts among the targeted group
  • adopting issue positions that appeal to the targeted group–sometimes on issues that do not affect the rest of the population very much (“Castro is a thief!”), other times with stances that are adverse to the interests of other citizens (“let’s not travel or sell anything to Cuba”)
  • passing laws (or helping to pass laws) that benefit the group

Note that taking positions and passing laws are two different things. In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama promised that comprehensive immigration reform would be on his first-year agenda. In 2009, immigration was crowded off the President’s agenda by other issues. In 2013, the Republicans are hoping to help enact a law that includes a path to citizenship that their 2012 Presidential candidate campaigned against.

So how does helping to pass immigration reform help the Republicans? There seem to be two scenarios:

  • Both parties share equal credit for the law, and subsequently Latinos who otherwise “ought” to vote Republicans based on their interests & views will no longer consider the GOP unfriendly.
  • One of the GOP senators working for the bill subsequently runs for president, wins the nomination, and wins the election based on his successful passage of this bill. Let’s call this the Rubio plan.

Will this work? It may depend on how “credit” is doled out. While the passage of the Senate bill was bipartisan–compared to recent efforts to deal with major issues–it is not as if the Republicans are wrapping this bill in a great big bear elephant hug. Consider:

  • party margins on the final Senate vote: Democrats 54-0, Republicans 14-32.
  • a Voteview analysis predicts that this bill will also split the House GOP in half.
  • Speaker Boehner has promised not to bring the bill up unless at least half the GOP conference likes it. Instead, his current plan is to bring up smaller pieces of immigration legislation. Even if this leads to a law in the end, this approach makes clear that House GOP legislators are, collectively, a roadblock to immigration reform.
  • If House Republicans insist on a set of hard-to-meet conditions for a path to citizenship they will be defying about 80% of Latino voters.
  • Along the way, individual Republicans are likely to be way “off-message” on this issue, e.g. Rep. Bachmann

She predicted that if amnesty becomes the law “the whole political system will change.”

“This is President Obama’s number one political agenda item because he knows we will never again have a Republican president, ever, if amnesty goes into effect. We will perpetually have a progressive, liberal president, probably a Democrat, and we will probably see the House of Representatives go into Democrat hands and the Senate will stay in Democrat hands.”

The lawmaker said that would create a permanent progressive class, and the country would never return to its constitutional foundations.

 Party Branding

Another way of thinking about what parties are trying to do is thinking about them as a commodity they are trying to sell. Just as Coca-Cola and Pepsi advertise and relentlessly to gain market share, the Democrats and Republicans work to get us to like them so they gain vote share.

From this perspective, the GOP strategy is easier to state: their current brand suffers from the perception that they are (in the words of a College Republican report) “closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.” By helping to pass the bill, Republicans hope to demonstrate that they are not as bad as they have looked in the past. As a result, Americans may have a more favorable view of Republicans.

From this perspective, electoral gain is not dependent upon gaining more Latino votes in the short run. By addressing glaring problems with their party image, Republicans may make gains with white voters (yes, an ever larger white vote share) who may like the Republicans on other issues.

Will it work? Well, see above. And let me add: Presidents tend to get credit for laws enacted on their watch, with the exception of Nixon and environmental legislation.  On the other hand, if Rubio gets the GOP Presidential nomination, that would highlight the Republicans’ role in passing immigration reform.

Final Thoughts

None of this is meant to suggest that the GOP should not support immigration reform. Politics is not everything, and I think it’s a good thing when legislators try to solve big problems no matter which party “wins.” It is more that I am curious–I assume Republicans (that is, the leaders of the GOP who are supporting immigration reform) have a strategy, a model of party management, and I want to know more about how it applies to this case.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Gregory Koger is a professor of political science at the University of Miami. All views expressed are his own.