Immigration Reform and Election 2008

Glenn Reynolds sees the possibility of a third party presidential win in 2008 being created by the current debate over immigration.

Just as Republicans are caught between their business-oriented constituencies (who want cheap labor that doesn’t talk back) and their grassroots constituencies (who don’t like illegal immigration), so too are the Democrats caught between two constituencies of their own.

The more I think about it, the more this looks like fertile ground for a third party to emerge. Who will it hurt more? The Republicans, or the Democrats? I’m not sure. Perhaps it will shake things up in general.

Stephen Green thinks he knows the answer:

If we have a strong, third-party presidential candidate in 2008, running on a “Secure Borders” platform, then the Republicans are screwed. Screwed like a non-union lettuce picker with dusky skin.


Latinos, legal or otherwise, are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. Fair or not, a Secure Borders campaign would likely be interpreted as “Screw the Mexicans! And Puerto Ricans! And you other darker people who didn’t come over on the Mayflower!” A Secure Borders third-party candidate, in other words, could undo two decades of Rovian efforts to get Latinos to vote Republican.

The unions might play Republican for once, but who cares? There aren’t that many Big Labor guys left anymore. Also, lots of them are already voting Republican when nobody is looking. Again, Republicans lose more votes than Democrats.

While there is a substantial yahoo element in both parties who would support a candidate who ran on a “build a wall and shoot anyone trying to climb it” platform, my strong guess (and hope) is that it is smaller than the Secure Borders crowd thinks.

Further, the problem with doing this analysis in a vacuum is that we can construct an ideal candidate who strips off the right elements from each party’s voting blocks. In reality, though, an actual candidate would have to run, who would alienate many of the people who might otherwise be attracted to a different perspective on immigration with some combination of controversial stands on other issues and a pricky personality.

As I’ve written more times than I can count, the institutional structure of our system simply does not favor third party candidates. The last time one pulled it off was 1860, when both the Whigs and Democrats split over slavery allowing Republican Abraham Lincoln to win in a four way race.

That dynamic is unlikely to repeat itself. Immigration, while controversial, is not nearly the hot button issue that slavery was. Indeed, the slavery fight had been festering for decades until the Dred Scott decision ended the Missouri Compromise and brought it to a head. Further, given that we now have popular primaries rather than party bosses choosing the nominees, candidates who match up well with public sentiments on the immigration issue–whatever they happen to be by the spring of 2008–are likely to be chosen.

More recently, we had a very popular third party candidate in Ross Perot in 1992. Before his candidacy imploded with bizarre allegations about Republican plots to disrupt his daughter’s wedding and a tacit endorsement of Bill Clinton, he struck a chord by addressing a number of popular concerns that the major parties had somehow ignored, notably balancing the budget. By 1994, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans had expropriated many of his ideas and Bill Clinton and the Democrats had run with others. When Perot ran again in 1996, he was saying the same thing everyone else did except nuttier.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Borders and Immigration, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Even more significantly, the 1860 election wasn’t even a true four-way race. It was two two-way races, one in the North and one in the South. Not surprisingly, given the demographics of the day, the winner of the two-race in the more populated North won the entire election.

  2. I agree that a third party is not likely to win, but the right third party could hurt either party enough to make it lose. The classic example is the bull moose party. It came the closest to ‘winning’, forcing one of the major parties into third place nationally.

    McCain is putting all his eggs in winning the republican nomination. If he doesn’t, would a third party candidacy by him be enough to keep the republicans out?

    Imagine Feingold not winning the democratic nomination and starting his own ‘speak truth to power’ third party candidacy?

    I suspect that the democrats are more immune to a third party because they have been out of power longer. Their pain is likely to make them focus on winning, not just vote to feel good.

    The republicans are more likely to be vulnerable to a third party candidacy because of the tensions in a big tent party and they have been in power long enough that any itches not being scratched really wrinkle.

    What will be interesting to me is how the blogosphere will play out of this. It certainly opens up new fund raising possibilities. It also provides a forum for dissenters to gather and start a third party. But would it also provide the rational debate on the impact of the third party?

    Imagine a perfect split of say Feingold, McCain/Hillary and Allen (just to put names in the spots). A far left, a ‘center’ (though I suspect the left sees Hillary much more in the center than I do just as the see McCain more to the right of center than I do) and a far right. And just to make it fun, imagine the center character pulled equally from both parties (yes, I realize that is not likely, but play along for now).

    Could the blogosphere dissect the real meaning of the three party contest and bring about a party discipline on either the left or right? Because in the scenario I described, the party with the best voter discipline wins. Depending on the electoral college vote breakdown, you wouldn’t even have to get all your voters back, just more than the other party.

    Interesting times.

  3. Herb says:

    A third party just might be in the offing. The Americans from my part of the country want the laws to be obeyed and to hell with all the rhetoric about human rights and civil rights. Both Dems and Reps had better get their rear ends in gear to enforce the law and that is that.

    If any thing even looking like amnesty is made into law, then,

    Why in the hell are we, the taxpayers of this country paying through the nose with BILLIONS of Dollars for a Dept of Immigration and Naturalization and Why are we paying BILLIONS for a Dept of Homeland Security if we let every Jose. Juan and who knows who walk across our borders without fear of any consequences.

  4. TJIT says:


    I think there is a large non yahoo group of voters who.

    1. Appreciate what immigrants bring to this nation

    2. Likes working with immigrants

    3. Is infuriated by the current lack control on the border.

    4. Is stunned at the upside down nature of the current immigrations system.

    A. Try to follow the rules and bring in well educated professionals (engineers, IT, etc)expect lots of aggravation and hassle.

    B. If you are an immigrant trying to go through the process legally expect lots of abuse from the system and a long wait.

    C. Bust over the border illegally, and then work illegally: Under the current proposals you will gain citizenship faster then those who are trying to enter the US legally.

    If you reward bad behavior you will get more of it. Looking at the immigrations stats since the 1986 amnesty program should make this painfully obvious.

  5. TJIT says:


    The 800 lb gorilla that is not getting the attention it deserves is the fact that the Mexican government and institutions are almost completely responsible for the mess at the border.

    Mexico is a country that is rich in natural resources, and human capital. Yet it remains an economic basket case because of its corrupt and ineffective institutions.

    The Mexican government is responsible for the bulk of the border problems. If they had a functioning government their economy would be so strong they would be looking to bring in help from the North, not the other way around.

  6. Doug says:

    One name comes to mind…… George Wallace.

    If George hadn’t been shot, think of how far he would have disrupted the Democratic Party.

    That is what we are in for. Jimmy Carter took a lot of Wallace’s ideas and ran with them in ’76.