In an election about the economy, immigration doesn’t rank particularly high on the list of key concerns for many voters. But the concerns of Latino voters, and the discussion of their potential to swing a presidential election, are once again being thrust to the fore.
Lifted by speculation over the vice presidential prospects of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the debate over the importance and allegiances of the nation’s fastest growing voting bloc will only get more pronounced this week when the Supreme Court hears arguments over Arizona’s controversial get-tough-on-immigration law.
But is the Latino vote really up for grabs, in a way that could swing the election? The polling data suggests that’s a stretch.
Polling shows that 2012 is shaping up to look a lot like 2008 among Latino voters: Two thirds nationally say they will vote for President Obama, a quarter say they’re in the GOP camp, with the little remaining undecided, as shown by a Univision poll from January and a Pew survey from a week ago. This despite the fact that reform advocates tell TPM that many Latinos are upset with the Obama administration over its handling of the economy, the inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and the fact that immigrant deportations have soared to their highest level ever.
“There’s no play in the immigration debate for Republicans — the states that it would move people are already in the R column,” said Doug Usher, a managing director with the bipartisan firm Purple Strategies and a former pollster for Sen. John Kerry’s (D) presidential campaign. But it’s equally unlikely to put new states on the map for President Obama, though Usher says he thinks Latino support could help him hold Colorado and Virginia.
Bruce Haynes, Usher’s colleague as a founding partner of Purple Strategies and a veteran of Republican campaigns, told TPM that in his list of the biggest swing states — Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Colorado — “Immigration is a issue in all of them, but a key driver in none of them.” But, he says, that’s not what’s important for Mitt Romney on the issue.
“It’s a positive for Romney in the way that he’s been consistent on it,” Haynes said. “He is decidedly conservative on this. … It’s more important for Romney to display that he’s a President, that he’s a leader, he can make tough decisions.” In essence, he says Romney’s tough position on immigration is a way to prove himself to the GOP base.
But while those on the pro-reform side say that the immigration issue will drive Latino support among that growing demographic, those who advocate the hardline stance say the opposite — that Latino support is indeed up for grabs.
“It’s interesting that over the past two weeks, some Republicans have been doing things in the hopes that they can attract Latino voters but Latinos are split on this issue,” Ira Mehlman, Media Director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a hardline pro-enforcement group, told TPM. When asked if that meant he felt if tough enforcement measures are a political benefit among Latinos, Mehlman said, “Absolutely. It doesn’t alienate Latinos. There is no evidence that Latinos want to see mass amnesty for illegal aliens. And for good reason — it’s their communities and schools that are being overwhelmed.”
But in addition to polling, past election results suggest embracing extreme enforcement does push Latinos away from a candidate, and right back into traditional political columns. The chief case in the last cycle was the Nevada Senate race, in which Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), deeply unpopular going into the race, was helped by high Latino turnout and a nearly 70 - 30 split amongst the group toward him, according to exit polling. His opponent, state Rep. Sharron Angle (R) ran ads that many decried as racist, charging that Reid was soft on criminals coming across the Mexican border and featuring the Arizona law as a solution.
For now, both sides claim they’re on the winning end of the argument.
“When Obama first sued Arizona, it was widely panned as ‘unpopular,’” says Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-reform organization. “I’d say with the timing now, it’s great politics. … It’s him standing up for Latinos against laws that essentially legalize harassment and discrimination.”
And for Romney, the political opening is in supporting a hardline approach, something that Mehlman at FAIR said could “tip the scales” in a close election and is bound to get more attention as the nation focuses on the Arizona law before the court.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.