Anti-immigrant ads like Trump’s sank the California GOP in the 90s

For Californians of my generation, Donald Trump’s new campaign ad felt eerily familiar. Grainy footage of purported border crossers, promises to toughen immigration security, and new policies to ensure that unauthorized immigrants do not receive public benefits — Trump’s 2016 commercial could have been playing on television in my hometown, Sacramento, 20 years ago. If you want to know how much damage the Trump campaign is doing to the Republican Party, we need only look at what happened to the GOP in my home state in the mid-1990s. Unlike in California, however, bad news for the national Republican Party does not mean good news for the Democrats.

In the 1990s, California Republicans pushed an extremely anti-immigration, anti-diversity platform. Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s successful 1994 reelection campaign featured an ad strikingly similar to the new Donald Trump ad. Wilson’s signature campaign issue was Proposition 187, a measure designed to prevent unauthorized immigrants from accessing government services like health care and public education. Proposition 187 passed with nearly 60% of the vote. More racially charged ballot measures followed: Proposition 209, which sought to prohibit affirmative action, and Proposition 227, an effort to end bilingual education programs. Both these measures passed, as well.

In the short term, the GOP strategy worked very well for the Republicans. But in the long run, the California GOP’s anti-immigrant crusade was a disaster for the state party, social scientists Shaun Bowler, Stephen Nicholson and Gary Segura have demonstrated.

First, the racially motivated ballot measures decisively turned Latinos away from the Republican Party, just as these voters were becoming a crucial part of the electorate in California. Prior to the ballot measures, many Latinos were independents, but leaned slightly to the Democrats. By 2002, the Democratic advantage with Latinos had grown to 51 percentage points. That sea change in Latino party identification was all the more important because it was a reversal of previous trends. In the two decades prior to the ballot measures, Latinos were actually becoming more likely to describe themselves as Republicans – a pattern that was entirely wiped out between 1994 and 2002.

What is more, a strategy of alienating Latino voters did not win new white voters. On the contrary: the probability of a non-Hispanic white person under 30 identifying as a Republican dropped 5 percentage points between 1994 and 2002. And because partisanship tends to solidify as one ages, driving away young voters likely augmented a generation of Democrats.

In California in the late 1990s, the Republican Party identified itself with very explicitly racialized anti-immigrant policies.  This year, the Trump campaign has made the same choice, and his message resonated strongly with rank-and-file Republican primary voters. As in California in the 1990s, there are votes to be had with this approach. But there are also consequences. The Trump campaign is informing a generation of young voters about the Republican Party’s priorities, and those priorities are alienating to ethnic minorities and many white voters. Some Republicans may wish to distance themselves from Trump, but no amount of intra-party scolding (or only-half-hearted endorsements) make Trump any less the party’s representative for the nation’s highest elected office. The GOP will be dealing with the aftereffects of this campaign for years to come.

Of course, the Trump campaign only exacerbates existing trends. Democrats have been banking on their demographic advantages for several election cycles now, just as some Republicans have been fretting about this issue.

Democrats should put down the champagne. In the U.S. political system, demographic dominance is no guarantee of political effectiveness, and not just because of gerrymandering or voter suppression. The GOP does not need to win the presidency to have a tremendous effect on policy. Many conservative goals can be achieved through obstruction in Congress and dominance in the state houses. If Democrats cannot find a way to win in these institutions, they will find little comfort in the fact that they would win imaginary elections decided by a national popular vote.

The fact that anti-immigrant and explicitly race-based rhetoric is driving voters away from the GOP has not yet reoriented the Republican Party. One reason may be that Republican losses do not ensure victory for the Democrats.