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President Obama’s decision to sue Arizona over its proposed immigration enforcement law may have reflected the administration’s honest judgment that such laws are repugnant and violate federal authority. But the lawsuit was also calculated election-year politics, a way of stigmatizing the GOP, and rallying the liberal faithful, especially Latinos. A Gallup poll in June found that Latinos were increasingly disaffected from Obama and his policies, while the President’s favorability rating with Whites and Black was unchanged. From a high of 69% in January, Obama’s rating with Latinos had fallen 12 points to 57%. Among Spanish-speaking Latinos, the drop was even more precipitous: 25%. According to Gallup, the slide was largely due to Obama’s failure to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, a cause that is near and dear to the country’s fastest-growing ethnic constituency, which some pollsters rightly refer to as the “sleeping giant” of American politics.
But thus far the Obama gambit isn’t working – and that spells trouble. According to the most recent polls, a majority of Latinos – nearly 60%, in fact – are still disappointed with his handling of immigration. Unless that perception is reversed, the Democrats face electoral disaster this November.
Without a strong Latino turnout in at least 30-35 congressional races where their votes could sway the outcome, the GOP is almost certain to recapture the House, regaining control of the key committee and subcommittee chairmanships that will shape the nation’s policy agenda – including immigration – leading up to 2012. And Republicans could also win a majority of the governorships and state legislatures which would allow them to dominate the upcoming federal redistricting process, influencing the composition of the House for at least another decade – perhaps two.
Let’s face it: the idea that a high-profile immigration lawsuit could undo Obama’s increasingly damaged standing with Latinos was politically naïve. Latinos aren’t African-Americans who traditionally vote in lockstep with Democratic candidates, and whose political ear is finely attuned to anything that smacks of “racism.” In fact, Latino political attitudes and voting patterns aren’t radically different from those of the public at large. They do have a special concern for immigration, but on the whole, they’re just as troubled about rising joblessness, higher taxes, and fiscal deficits as the “average” American. No amount of pre-election pandering, and calculated GOP-bashing, on immigration was going to reverse that trend overnight.
One often hears the argument from Democratic spokespersons that whatever the party’s current troubles with Latinos, the GOP’s embrace of anti-immigration politics will make it impossible for Republicans to attract significant Latino support in the future, making GOP candidates less electable. The problem with this view is twofold. First, the Latino share of the American electorate is not growing anywhere near as fast as its share of the US population. Only a minority of the nation’s 48 million Latinos are old enough to vote, and are US citizens, and therefore, legally eligible to cast ballots. And Latino registration and voting levels are still fairly low. In 2008, only 9% of the total US electorate was Latino. It’s growing, but extremely slowly, and with half of Latino population growth still due to immigration, relatively low levels of voter participation may continue for some time – at least a decade or more, according to Leslie Sanchez, a top GOP pollster.
But the second reason to doubt that Democrats can rest comfortably on their laurels comes back to Latino voting patterns. A good 20-25% of Latinos, it turns, out are as hostile to illegal immigration as any xenophobic white voter might be. This is especially true of long-time Latinos who do not identify as immigrants, or as children or even grandchildren of immigrants. Many, in states like Arizona and New Mexico, have American ancestry dating back generations. Some are wealthy or upwardly mobile, and many no longer speak – if they ever did – Spanish. They simply don’t identify with the recent waves of Latino immigrants and resent being associated with them.
In fact, only about 35-40% of Latinos could be described as dyed-in-the-wool Democratic voters, those who so identify with the party, its social policies, and its message of “inclusion” and “diversity” that they consistently vote for Democratic candidates, almost regardless of who’s running. That leaves another 35-40%, mainly Spanish-speaking and recently naturalized Latinos, who tend to swing, depending on variety of factors, immigration policy increasingly being one, but other factors relating to the candidate and his or her perceived character, being just as important.
In the past, Latinos, have demonstrated unusual fondness for moderate Republican male candidates who project leadership command, family values, compassion and fairness, and a genuine openness to promoting social mobility and equal opportunity for all. That’s what allowed former California Gov. Peter Wilson to win such as sizable percentage of the Latino vote in 1992 – before he pissed it all away by supporting Proposition 187 in 1994. It’s that same set of qualities – plus his embrace of immigration reform – that once drew Latinos so compellingly to George W. Bush.
And that same political dynamic is still in play. We saw it last spring when a little-known state attorney general, Robert McDonnell, pulled off a stunning victory over L. Creigh Deeds, the national Democratic party’s chosen candidate, in the governor’s race in Virginia, despite furious last-minute lobbying by Obama and former president Clinton. Virginia was one of the crown jewels of Obama’s 2008 victory, and an early referendum on his presidency. Deeds’ loss pre-figured subsequent Democratic defeats in Massachusetts and New Jersey, which set the stage for Obama’s slow decline ever since.
Largely unnoticed at the time, McDonnell ran neck-and-neck with Deeds in pre-election polls among Virginia’s rapidly growing Latino population, thanks to his campaign’s aggressive outreach with all of the state’s immigrant groups. McDonnell downplayed his past opposition to illegal immigration and even hinted that he might support some kind of attempt to “integrate” rather than deport them. But he also emphasized the importance of English as the nation’s first language – a suffused and subtle code that says to nervous whites: we are still the dominant culture. Deeds seemed oblivious to his opponent’s cagey tactics, and fell into the trap of thinking that bashing McDonnell as a right-winger – and taking the Latino vote largely for granted, as Democrats have so often in the past – would be enough. It wasn’t.
So, is a swing back to the GOP – not a majority swing, but one on par with Bush’s unprecedented 44% of the Latino vote in 2004 – actually possible? The prospect shouldn’t be ruled out. In fact, a just-released CNN poll found that only 54% of Latinos currently leaned toward Obama and the Democrats, while an astounding 39% leaned toward the GOP. The poll was conducted well after the Obama administration had announced its intention to sue Arizona over SB 1070, but before the latest offensive by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) attacking “birth citizenship” for illegal aliens. What it shows, though, is that Latino concerns about immigration, as important as they are, don’t necessarily trump their broader concerns over the larger direction of the country. Especially when Democrats, despite their reform rhetoric, have done no more to push the immigration reform agenda than Republicans have – and indeed, are deporting illegal aliens, mostly Latinos, at record levels, with no end in sight.
Whether the current polling trend holds, though, could well depend on how Republicans play their cards after November, and whether – once the current Tea Party upsurge is sufficiently exploited to sweep Republicans back into office – they start tacking back to the center, and projecting themselves as the party of “yes” on immigration and everything else – especially job creation – in the run up to 2012. Leading Republicans – everyone from presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to GOP chairman Michael Steele and even former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – have been urging the GOP to make its immigration message more “positive” and “inclusive.” Palin, like McDonnell in Virginia last spring, has even hinted that some kind of legal status for the undocumented should be considered.
If nothing else, the growing Latino disaffection with Obama should be a wake-up call for Democrats. Janet Murguia, the head of the National Council for La Raza, one of the nation’s leading Latino lobbies, has repeatedly warned both parties that the Latinos ”belong to no one” and their votes “shouldn’t be taken for granted.” It may seem improbable now, but should the GOP win big in November, and decide to recast immigration reform to include a modest legalization program, a considerable number of fence-sitting Latinos might continue to swing their way. And as the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections demonstrated, in the critical states, it doesn’t take that much of a Latino swing to decide the final outcome.
All of this assumes, however, a reasonably even distribution of the white vote. For the Latino vote doesn’t exist in isolation. It matters right now because it’s an important “swing” factor. But there’s a countervailing trend underway that is leading to a powerful swing of white voters – and not just men, or independents – to the GOP. If it reaches 60%, which is increasingly likely, the GOP may not even need the Latino vote, at least not to the degree currently forecast.
Which means that Democrats who so confidently predict that Republican “nativism” holds long-term peril for the GOP don’t even have half the story right. Obama’s race-baiting on Arizona hasn’t galvanized Latinos, but it’s further polarizing whites. And therein lies the real peril for the President and his party in the run-up to 2012.
STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org