I am certainly no expert on the issues specific to immigration reform; I accept the idea of a reasonable path to citizenship as good public policy and in line with our grand tradition of cultural and economic reinvigoration through immigration (and in opposition to our equally deep and unfortunate tradition of xenophobia). But the political question of the enactment of such reform in Obama's first term raises some interesting questions about the futures of the parties and the electoral map.
Republicans have been facing an electoral map disadvantage in some sense at least since 2000. This may sound counterintuitive as we all remember Gore actually won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college. But in fact Gore, even losing Florida and Ohio, could have won by picking up any number of small states; and Kerry (a genuinely weak candidate, in my opinion) came exceedingly close to being elected in the electoral college despite losing by a couple percentage points in the popular vote. In all three of the last elections, Democrats could basically count on a "bank" of electoral votes that was larger than the republicans.
Based on these trends, Democrats can now reliably count on New England, the entire West Coast, the progressive north (Minnesota and Wisconsin, sometimes Iowa) and a significant block of middle-atlantic and rustbelt states (think the continuing inability of repubs to compete in presidential elections in New Jersey or Pennsylvannia, under varying circumstances). As has been widely commented on recently, the Republicans are facing a future as a "regional party" limited by its rural and evangelical base to the south and the prairie west. I think this may be a little optimistic unless we see a genuine realignment and new consensus (based necessarily on positive economic results) resulting in a 2012 election that looks like 1964 or 1984, a point that has been made by a number of bright people (the Notorious Nate Silver included; Jay Cost deconstructs the whole idea on RCP in rather convincing fashion as well). Clearly a number of close states in this election will return to or remain in the red column (Missouri, Indiana, North Carolina) and the Republicans will certainly be able to compete in Florida and Ohio in an environment that is less hostile.
But just as crucial a result of this election is that two states in the Southwest, Nevada and New Mexico, now appear to be solidly in the blue column (McCain got creamed in Nevada), while Colorado and Arizona appear to be genuine swing states. You can quibble with whether or not increased Latino support of Obama provided the margin of victory in these states; but plainly Republicans cannot afford to lose two thirds of the latino votes in the Southwest, particularly in light of ongoing demographic change (changes that make Florida more difficult for repubs to win, and may make even Texas into a state where dems can compete) This alone results in future republican candidates facing "McCain's dilemma." With Dems guaranteed to split, or outperform Republicans in the Southwest, even a republican who WINS Florida and Ohio, and border states like Missouri, is likely to lose.
The common wisdom is that Obama's first big projects will be a green economic plan, and healthcare. These are incredibly complex issues that will take up a lot of legislative time and resources. But if I were the Obama people, I would be taking a close look at immigration reform as well. A roadmap exists from the recent failed effort, and with democratic majorities and a small McCain-lead moderate republican faction already in existence (and belonging to that small republican group that is not in denial and understands these demographic shifts) this can clearly get done. I am not suggesting that Latinos will become a permanent part of a democratic coalition simply because Dems rationalize and decriminalize immigration policy, or that they are somehow a "one-issue group." Rather, I believe that it is the nativist Republican backlash that will prevent Repubs from again getting G.W.'s 40% of the Latino vote for a generation, just as the Tom Tancredos of the Republican primary, and McCain's resultant inability to run as a moderate on the issue, drove latinos to the Dems this time around. Republicans still believe they can turn african-americans by appealing to them on social issues; but as long as they remain the party of the Southern Strategy and the welfare and crime boogey-man, they will not. The point is simply that it doesn't matter what issues you agree on: If the people who hate and/or fear you are overwhelmingly voting for a candidate because of that candidate's and that party's rhetoric, then you will not vote for that candidate and his party. Immigration reform is certain to drive the Republican base into a nativist frenzy and drive a further wedge between the pro-business power structure of the party and its rural, culturally conservative base. I would submit that immigration reform is now a winner for Democrats politically, because it drives Republicans apart more than Democrats.
That is not to say that there would not be negative repercussions politically on the Dem side. Obama's concern would have to be for the newly elected Dem congresspeople in conservative districts in 2010; 2011 might be a good year as it would allow some of these reps to get to know their districts better and get reelected, and it would also make sure the issue is fresh and the Republican candidate in 2012 is once again forced to run on an anti-immigrant platform. The other major concern would be in the rust belt, where the issue has been used in the past to scare up votes. But this is a region that presumably will be seeing government intervention and assistance through the "New New Deal," something it has not gotten in the last thirty years. Again, Obama does not need to win Ohio in 2012 to be reelected. If he can create some jobs or get the auto industry turned around at all, this should counteract any fear-mongering on immigration in these areas.Jay Cost deconstructs