Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Monday, October 20, 2003
John Derbyshire asks an interesting question: if a 3rd-party candidate ran on a platform of ending illegal immigration, and reducing immigration generally, would he (or she) get enough votes to swing the election to the Democrat? Allow me to ruminate a bit.

First, I'm of the opinion that Perot did elect Clinton, though not because he took a huge number of Republican votes from Bush. Rather, his entry into the race, when he did and as he did, disrupted Bush's reelection campaign by revealing the depth of national discontent with the President, and gave Clinton and the Democrats the time to recover from a bruising primary season and reemerge at the convention united, upbeat and, apparently, different from Democrats of the past. As I recall, Perot then dropped out, citing a "revitalized" Democratic Party as the reason. Had Perot stayed out of the race at that point, I believe Clinton would have won with a clear majority. Had he never entered, the dynamic might have been rather different, and it's conceivable Clinton would have lost - or at least had a very close race.

Second: while I am absolutely convinced that Derb, Steve Sailer and the other prominent immigration restrictionists out there are onto something - this is an issue that many Americans care about, and that the two parties have banished from polite discourse - I'm less convinced that, at least in 2004, a large number of Americans would vote on this matter and nothing else. And a 3rd party candidate who said nothing else is what's being posited. Close to half of the typical Presidential electorate is really pretty happy with G.W. Bush, and will not defect. A good 35% to 40% of the typical Presidential electorate is sufficiently hard-core Democrat that they will vote for any of the current plausible candidates rather than Bush or a 3rd party candidate. So I think a single-issue anti-immigration candidate will mostly draw folks who don't normally vote or are loosely attached to the parties.

Third: the part of the GOP coalition most dissed by this Administration is the CATO-type small governmentoids and libertarians. These folks don't like the Patriot Act, hate Bush's free-spending ways, and many of them are not happy about the war. But these people also LOVE free immigration. NONE of them will defect to a candidate running on the National Question. By contrast, who's going to get left out of the Democratic coalition? The most plausible candidates for the Democrat nomination are Dean and Kerry (still). They are both Northeastern liberals who will be assembling a McGovern coalition: single and divorced women, blacks and Hispanics, affluent liberals, public-sector unions, urban professionals, etc. Yes, they'll tack to the center in the general election, in an attempt to win more suburbanites. Who's left out? The hard-hats: private-sector unionized workers who might vote enthusiastically for Gephardt but who are going to be pretty unenthusiastic about Dr. Dean or patrician Kerry. These are also the Democratic voters *most* likely to be receptive to an anti-immigration candidate.

My fourth point about how such a candidate would affect the race should be about geography. But I'm not sure what the impact would be. It's obvious to me that an anti-immigration candidate would do very well in California. But California will go Democrat unless there's a landslide GOP victory, so I don't see how a strong 3rd party polling in that state could help the Democrats much in taking the Presidency. Outside of California, I'm less sure how things play out. Fear of immigration was clearly a factor (ironically) in defeating Ron Unz's anti-bilingual ed initiative in Colorado in 2002. Colorado is a must-win for Bush. New Mexico isn't a must-win, but it's an important swing state for Bush. It's also got a huge percentage of Hispanic voters. Assuming they vote solidly Democrat (not certain, but likely) then a split in the white vote could tip the state to the Dems. But the opposite dynamic might operate in a state like Wisconsin, or Michigan, where the migration of white Democrats to a 3rd party anti-immigration candidate could tip the states to Bush. Bottom line: I think the dynamics of such a candidacy, and its effects on the Electoral College, are very hard to predict.

All this is by way of saying: Bush should be thinking about this scenario, but not fretting desperately. A 3rd party libertarian challenge would be of much smaller significance as a national phenomenon, but in a close election might a bigger potential threat, as it would draw overwhelmingly from potential GOP voters, just as Nader drew overwhelmingly from potential Democrat voters. I think an anti-immigration candidate could do very well. I don't think it's likely such a candidate would throw the election to the Democrats. I think it's at least as likely it could help Bush as hurt him.

But what it would definitely do is put the issue on the map.

What happens then? Hard to say. Look at the last French Presidential election. The French electorate basically hated Chirac. And about 30% of the electorate voted for candidates with a nativist message (at least in part): about 20% for Le Pen, a couple of percent for other candidates from the far-right, and a few percent for a center-right candidate who slapped a Beur youth at a rally (which the media thought would hurt him, but obviously helped him significantly, probably cutting into Le Pen's vote as more respectable people defected to a more respectable candidate). So now that Le Pen's success has demostrated the power of the anti-immigration vote, has anything about French policy changed? Not much. Chirac has made some efforts to crack down on crime, and some gestures in the direction of economic liberalization, but nothing terribly radical. And I don't think any significant has changed in policy terms with respect to the French National Question.

I'm much more of an assimilationist than a restrictionist myself; I think high legal immigration has historically been a net economic positive for the country. But it does seem to me this issue doesn't get aired with the honesty it should. Both the corporate Right and the multi-cultural Left, who favor high immigration levels and are unconcerned about illegal immigration, have engaged in too much ad-hominem in debating the question. It would be healthy for someone to put the issue of illegal immigration on the political map, for real. What happens once it's there is much harder to predict.