If I were the GOP, I’d be thinking about the long game. They don’t need to win the majority of Latino votes now or even in the near future. But, other things equal, they should want to shape the “political environment,” to use Pantoja’s term, so that many of these unaffiliated Latinos will, once naturalized, view the GOP as a party that could represent them.
One prominent theory of party identification is that people identify with the party that they associate with social groups they like or belong to. So it’s not so much about policy, or what the parties “stand for.” It’s who the parties “stand with.” The challenge for the GOP is that even if it supports other policies that many Latinos support, its hostility to immigration reform may be the driving force behind a broader impression: that the Democrats are “the party of Latinos.” And once those impressions are formed, they are very difficult to change. As I’ve noted, the perception that the GOP is the “party of the rich” really has not changed for 60 years.
Now, how firmly established is any impression that the GOP is not “the party of Latinos”? Probably not that firmly established, especially in the minds of Latinos that are not yet citizens. Most are unaffiliated, as noted, and only 25% identify as Democrats and 3% as Republicans. But among those that are naturalized citizens? Nearly half, 44%, identify as Democrats and only 15% as Republicans. In other words, the 22-point advantage Democrats have among non-citizen Latinos becomes 29 points among Latino citizens. This, to me, suggests that the “political environment” is not currently working in Republicans’ favor.