The Republicans' hard-line stance on illegal immigration has reversed the GOP's recent gains among Hispanic-American voters, whose loyalty to the Democratic Party has shot back up to the levels of the 1990s.
The Pew Hispanic Center has released a new survey showing that since July 2006 -- when most Republican presidential candidates, and many of the party's members of Congress, harshly attacked immigration legislation offering a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented -- Hispanic support for the Democratic Party rose by 8 points and dropped 5 points for the GOP.
In other words, what had been a 21 point edge for the Democratic Party (49-28) in July 2006 has now ballooned into a 34 point advantage (57-23).
"This U-turn in Hispanic partisan allegiance trends comes at a time when the issue of illegal immigration has become an intense focus of national attention and debate -- on the presidential campaign trail; in the corridors of federal, state and local governments; and on cable television and talk radio," wrote the authors of the Pew study, Paul Taylor and Richard Fry.
Looking toward 2008, Democratic Hispanic voters strongly favor Hillary Clinton, 59 percent, compared to 15 percent for Barack Obama, 8 percent for Bill Richardson and 4 percent for John Edwards.
Among the minority of Hispanics who describe themselves as Republicans, Rudy Giuliani led with 35 percent, well ahead of Fred Thompson, 13 percent; John McCain, 10 percent; and Mitt Romney, 4 percent.
The study demonstrated that mounting Republican opposition to plans offering citizenship rights to some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country has proven costly to the party among Latino voters. Giuliani and Romney, who had in the past backed such measures, no longer do so, and McCain, who had been a leading sponsor, has pulled back from his position.
Taylor and Fry noted that Hispanic votes could be crucial to the outcome of the 2008 presidential election "because they are strategically located on the 2008 Electoral College map. Hispanics constitute a sizable share of the electorate in four of the six states that President Bush carried by margins of five percentage points or fewer in 2004 -New Mexico (37%); Florida (14%); Nevada (12%) and Colorado (12%). All four are expected to be closely contested once again in 2008."
At the same time, however, Republican strategists are planning to use the support from leading Democratic presidential candidates for immigration reform legislation as a wedge issue. They hope to use the anger of some white Democratic voters toward illegal immigrants to draw them to the GOP.
Among some of the key findings of the telephone survey of 843 registered Hispanic voters:
* By a margin of 44-8, these voters said the Democrats have more concern for Latinos than Republicans.
* By only a slightly smaller margin, 41-14, Hispanic voters said the Democrats are better equipped to deal with illegal immigration.
* Although Bush has pointedly sought to build support among Hispanics, 41 percent described administration policies as harmful and only 16 percent said they were helpful.