Barely more than a year ago, pundits were touting President Obama’s overwhelming popularity with Latinos. En route to re-election, Obama had won a whopping 71% of the Hispanic vote, compared to just 27% for Mitt Romney, the GOP’s lowest share since Bob Dole in 1996. Despite having made sizable gains with Hispanics under George W. Bush in 2004, Republicans, under pressure from the far right, appeared content to rally their core base of white males in the South, leaving ethnic minorities to fend for themselves. Many commentators began predicting imminent “demographic disaster” for the GOP.
Now it seems that Obama is flirting with disaster. Having promised but failed again to deliver on immigration reform, he’s on the verge of getting completely outmaneuvered by the GOP. Republicans have scaled back their tough rhetoric on enforcement far enough to convince most observers that they are serious about legalizing at least some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who desperately want a legal foothold, and hopefully a path to citizenship. But they’re not about to negotiate with the Democrats on a larger immigration package when they’re so close to winning back control of the entire Congress, setting the stage for a possible re-conquest of the White House in 2016.
With polls showing voters tilting toward the GOP in the upcoming mid-terms, a worst case scenario for Democrats is starting to materialize: Republicans re-take the Senate in November and regain control of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, allowing them to recast immigration reform in their own image. The GOP package would require stepped-up workplace enforcement and an expanded business-oriented visa program for foreign-born engineers, and would include some kind of “amnesty,” but only a limited one that would likely leave a large number of undocumented immigrants still out in the cold and subject to deportation. No doubt the President would threaten a veto to extract concessions and tweak the final bill, but he couldn’t afford to block it. In the end, Republicans, once pegged as the “party of no,” would be able to claim credit for having fashioned the legislative formula that finally allowed immigration reform to pass after a decade of partisan gridlock.
It’s not just his fumbling on immigration reform that’s hurting Obama right now. It’s also his mishandling of Obamacare. The same disastrous “roll-out” that has disappointed American voters to the point where a healthy majority now favors repeal has thoroughly dumfounded and confused Latinos, only a small percentage of whom have enrolled thus far. Latinos comprise a disproportionately high share of the uninsured – 33% according to the National Council for La Raza, the country’s leading Latino advocacy group – and they’re younger, too (with a median age of 27 compared to 37 for the general population). That means the long-term success of Obamacare could depend heavily on how well it plays with a group that’s growing five times faster than non-Hispanic Whites but remains surprisingly volatile in its political allegiances.
Right now, it’s playing badly. The administration failed to get the Spanish-language version of its health care web site up and running until last December – way behind schedule — and when it finally did, the site experienced not just technical glitches but also cultural and linguistic ones. Whomever the HHS had contracted to design the site, cuidardesalud.org, had completely flubbed the job. There were so many basic grammar and word choice errors that some Latino detractors described the site’s language as “Spanglish,” saying that it must have been “computer-generated.” The impression left was that the administration didn’t really care all that much whether Latinos got qualified for Obamacare.
It didn’t help that HHS had chosen a name for the web site based on a Spanish verb (“cuidar”) that seemed to suggest that Latinos didn’t need to “sign up” or “get covered” but to “watch out.” For a population with 20 million undocumented members facing the daily threat of deportation, and even legal immigrants as well as US citizen Latinos often subject to harassment and discrimination, this was hardly the most “user-friendly” message. Now the administration is desperately scrambling to find enough bilingual consultant to help anxious Spanish-language users walk through the enrollment process before the pending deadline. But the word from California – where half the uninsured are Latino – is that it’s already too late.
Polls have shown a precipitous drop in Latino support for the president since December 2012, owing to these stumbles on immigration and health care. He’s still in the mid-50s in his overall favorability rating, but his drop off is larger than for any other group: a remarkable 23 points since his re-election. Two months ago, he lost nearly 10 points in a single week — a record. The polling organization Gallup, which has tussled with the White House over its polling practices, has described the steep Latino drop-off as “widespread disaffection.” No kidding.
On the surface, this trend is not completely new. In fact, the current drop-off of support is similar to the one Obama suffered in 2011, when it became clear that immigration reform was stalled, and that the recession had hit Hispanics especially hard. For a while, there are was talk that Latinos might even sit out the 2012 election, or tilt enough of their votes toward Romney that it might make a real difference in Latin-rich Florida and the Southwestern swing states.
It didn’t happen, of course, what with Romney suggesting that illegal immigrants should simply “self-deport” to their homelands. But it still took an extraordinary measure to reverse the tide of Latino disaffection. In June 2012, Obama decided to issue an executive order temporarily legalizing prospective beneficiaries of the DREAM Act. His bold stroke helped electrify Latinos, especially since Obama had insisted for nearly two years that he didn’t have the legal authority to bypass Congress. Every time Latino activists and key House members like Rep. Luis Gutierrez had asked him to take direct action, he’d demurred. Lobby House and Senate members harder, he’d told them. My hands are tied.
But with an election looming, and so many swing states at risk, Obama decided to gamble. It worked.
Now, though, the political terrain is quite different. It’s an off-year election, for one. Also, Latinos are surveying the scene and the 40% or so that identify as independent – but normally tilt Democratic – are back on the fence. Chris Christie won re-election in New Jersey last November with an astounding 51% of the Latino vote, and he did it by defeating the state’s women’s rights champion and her Latina running mate. In the waning weeks of the campaign, Christie promised to support the DREAM Act, a version of which most Republicans now support. Latinos see a growing number of other GOP prospects, including former two-term Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Mexico governor Susana Martinez, speaking up for them, too, and they sense that a political sea-change is in the offing
And it’s not just relative moderates that are in a position to impress Latinos. Polls conducted by the left-leaning survey firm Latino Decision have found that leading GOP figures like House conservative leader Paul Ryan could earn over 40% of the Latino vote nationally in a prospective 2016 presidential bid. How? By publicly endorsing immigration reform.
Even member of the Tea Party show signs of coming around. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a conservative House Republican from South Carolina, recently held a forum in his district in which he invited Latinos to attend to talk about immigration. Local Latinos who attended the event came away impressed, according to Julia Preston of the New York Times. Mulvaney seemed genuinely interested in making overtures on reform, and to the shock of his audience, spoke fluent Spanish. However, in a bid for votes, he also told the gathering that he had to keep a low profile on the issue until after the mid-term elections.
Latinos are not about to jump ship in large numbers for any Republican who waves some version of immigration reform in their face, but Latino swing voters are open to being persuaded, and much of the GOP knows it. The continuing high rate of deportations under Obama has proven disheartening to the point where people’s trust in the president is being shattered. Back in 2009, when Obama was promising to use his political capital to pass “comprehensive” immigration reform in his first year in office, it was understood that a continuation of the Bush deportation policy might be a political necessity – as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Republican hard liners.
But the past five years have revealed a much darker side to Obama’s policies. The President has implemented a tough enforcement policy all his own – including the notorious Secure Communities program — even as the prospects for reform legislation, including a promised legalization program, have receded. Latinos know that most of the 2 million people deported since Obama took office – a record that now surpasses Bush’s – would have been legalized had reform legislation been promoted and passed during Obama’s first year. It’s a bitter pill that few are willing to swallow any longer.
Why didn’t Obama push immigration reform early on, when he had the Senate super-majority to overcome a GOP filibuster threat? When I raised that issue with a top Obama advisers in 2009, the answer was unequivocal: “Health care reform is our top priority. Latinos will have to wait.” That’s what Latinos did, but top Latino leaders say that their community’s patience has reached the breaking point. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-FL), a Cuban-American who has championed immigration reform for years, recently joined with the head of La Raza, Janet Murguia, to publicly question Obama’s commitment to Latinos. Murguia, known for her even-temperedness, was even blunter, referring to Obama in a recent press conference as the “Deporter-in-Chief.”
The president’s options are dwindling fast. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is trying to round up votes for a so-called “discharge petition,” a rarely used legislative maneuver that could force House Republican to vote on pending immigration reform legislation. Pelosi doesn’t have the votes to get the discharge petition passed, but she’s hoping that the maneuver itself will embarrass the Republicans into addressing reform, or a least give the Democrats ammunition against the Republicans in competitive districts with relatively large percentages of Latinos. But the fact is, there aren’t enough of those districts to make a difference. Pelosi would need almost 20 Republican votes to force a vote, and even those who might be sympathetic – including the handful that have quietly worked with Democrats on comprehensive reform for some time — won’t break party unity, not with control of the entire Congress on the line.
That leaves Obama with the option of issuing another executive order, this time halting deportation for the parents of the DREAMers on the assumption that families should remain reunited. Maximalists among his Latino base want him to suspend all deportations, at least temporarily, granting, in effect, an “amnesty by fiat.” However, the administration appears to have dismissed either option as too risky, and like the GOP, seems prepared to take its chances in November.
Thus, a lot is riding on the outcome of the midterms. If the Democrats hold, they can likely force the GOP into accepting some version of comprehensive immigration reform before 2016. However, if they lose the Senate — and it’s better than 50-50 now that they will — there’s likely to be a whole new immigration ballgame come next January. If Republicans can deliver a decent half loaf – after years of yeast and water – many Latinos are likely to grab on to it, as only the politically starving can do. And that decision could end up giving the GOP a major political windfall, reshaping Latino voter allegiances for some time to come.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org