Op-Ed Lawrence: Dangerous Levels of Defection Among Hispanic Swing Voters & the Stats

Posted: Nov 15 2014

Vota-By Stewart J. Lawrence
"
Shellacked" is how many commentators describe the humiliating defeat suffered by Democrats -- and President Obama -- in last week's mid-terms. And for good reason.  More than a half dozen Democratic candidates thought to be in competitive races ended up losing - badly.  They included Senate contenders Mark Udall in Colorado, Michelle Nunn in Georgia, and Kay Hagan in North Carolina, and gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist in Florida.  Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, who faces a run-off next month, is almost certain to lose her election, too.  All of these Democrats had slim leads in the polls in the weeks leading up to the election until the final days when it became clear that most undecided voters were tilting toward the GOP.          

But here's the real shocker: Among those undecideds that swung Republican? An unusually large percentage were Latino.   In Georgia, 44% of Latinos voted for the winning GOP candidate, Michael Purdue, even though just 25% of Latino voters were affiliated with his party, according to pre-election surveys; in North Carolina, the result was even more shocking: 43% of Latinos voted for Pat Tillis, even though just 18% of Latino voters were registered GOP.   And finally, Colorado. This is the state with one of the largest independent voter blocs in the country, both Latino (45%) and among the voting population at large. In 2012, Obama won an astounding 80% of the Latino vote in Colorado capturing nearly all of the independents. However, according to 2014 exit polls, Republican Cory Gardner may have won as much as 50% of the Latino vote, an astounding turnaround in just two years.

Some might be tempted to conclude that Latinos defected to this degree because Obama himself was not on the ballot. But, in fact, the election was as much a referendum on Obama and his policies as it was a contest among congressional and Senate candidates.   Obama made that clear prior to the election, and all of the defeated Democratic candidates were closely identified with Obama.   Latino defection from the president has been growing steadily ever since early 2013; his favorability rating just prior to the election (45-48%) was close to an all-time low.   Disaffection is due to a combination of factors. Obama’s refusal to aggressively pursue immigration reform, amid record deportations, chronic problems getting Latinos registered for Obamacare, and continuing high Latino unemployment have led all but the most die-hard Latino Democrats to start questioning Obama’s leadership. The dynamic tracks with national voter trends – and that’s part of the problem; in the past the president could generally count on Latinos remaining far more loyal than the American voters at large. No longer, it seems.

One will never know what might have happened if Obama had gone ahead and issued a fresh executive order on immigration, as promised, prior to the mid-terms. Would moderates in the South and Southwest have fled from Democratic candidates any more than they did without the order? Probably not. Obama’s decision to backpedal, supposedly to protect those handful of White Democrats who felt executive action would hurt their chances, rightly struck many Latinos as a cynical and self-defeating gesture.   In fact, North Carolina and Georgia have two of the highest Latino growth rates in the country, and Colorado is a major presidential swing state, with Latinos comprising some 14% of the electorate. Even in Georgia, where their share is still a small fraction, Latino eligible voters have grown twenty-fold over the past decade, from a mere 10,000 in 2003, to some 220,000 in 2013.   Had an electrified Latino electorate shown up at the polls, and swung wildly in Nunn’s favor, it might have made a difference in a close election. The same was almost certainly true in Colorado. The president caved into the most narrow, short-term and almost defeatist calculation about the power of the Latino vote, which represents the Democrats’ future if they ever hope to turn a number of southern States like Georgia Blue.  

Obama, of course, has already made Latinos wait on immigration despite their having steadfastly stood by him in 2008 and 2012. He figures, not unreasonably, that issuing the executive order next month, before the new Republican-dominated Congress is seated, will electrify the Latino electorate again – and that all will be forgiven. He may well be right. That’s exactly what happened in mid-2012 when he suddenly stayed the deportation of the DREAMers. Only now the political environment is far more precarious.   Obama need not face the voters again – but his fellow Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, do. The public, which has broadly supported a sweeping legalization program – even a majority of Republican voters said last year that supported a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented – has started to sour on the Democrats version of immigration reform and now says it wants to see the Republican Congress legislate.   (In a little notice poll conducted before the mid-term elections, 63% of voters said they were opposed to further Obama executive action on immigration).

But Obama really has no choice. If he reneges, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the long-time champion of immigration reform in the House, is promising a “civil war,” and the Democrats can probably kiss Latino swing voters good-bye. If Obama follows through, there will be threats of impeachment from the likes of Ted Cruz, a mountain of civil lawsuits, and probably one GOP legislative maneuver after another designed to make implementation of the president’s new order impossible. And quite possibly, depending on the magnitude of the backlash, no further serious legislative progress on immigration reform until the dust settles from 2016.

Still, a narrow window remains. Both sides have too much to lose should immigration fall victim to partisan gridlock and the public turns on one or both parties – which could easily be Obama and the Democrats this time. Obama may threaten unilateral action, and the GOP may threaten to bury his executive order like it hopes to bury Obamacare. But the reality is, the two sides may well find a constructive way to deal. There are ways out of the current impasse that belie the high-flying rhetoric that the public heard last week. Obama could issue a very limited order that only legalizes a small number of additional undocumented workers – the families of the DREAMers, for example. He could also couple that order with a second order that actually jump starts workplace enforcement – in theory, a centerpiece of immigration reform that conservatives have championed but that most progressives oppose. And paradoxically, despite their fierce rhetoric, Boehner and McConnell might quietly welcome a modest Obama executive order because it free them to legislate the other aspects of immigration reform without having to break ranks with the far-right on the question of legalization.

In the final analysis, each party wants to gain as much political capital as it can from immigration reform. Obama needs to make a fresh statement of his support for legalization, to reassure his base, and woo back wavering Latino moderates, which makes some kind of order all-but-inevitable. The Republicans, with an eye toward 2016, need to demonstrate a sincere commitment to becoming the party of “yes” on immigration.  Canceling legislation on immigration reform in a pique over Obama’s almost certain new order – especially, if it’s a modest one -- is unlikely to fly with the public at large. Obama’s order is certainly pre-emptive, and it may be unwise, but it’s not unconstitutional – and the GOP knows it.   As long as each side takes the political needs and constraints of the other into account, and can ride herd on the most recalcitrant elements in their own ranks, we may end up with some kind of lasting “bipartisan” deal after all -- but one that is likely to evolve through a series of stages and legislative initiatives with lots of finger-pointing, threats and ultimatums along the way, and each party scrambling to claim more than its fair share of credit.   It’s going to be messy – but since when has immigration reform been anything but.

 

     Latino Party Affiliation Prior to 2014 Mid-Term Election, By State

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(%)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CA

AZ

CO

FL

GA

IL

NC

NV

TX

Total

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Democrat

36

34

33

30

29

33

31

31

40

34

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Republican

14

16

11

14

25

11

18

16

16

16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Independent

38

37

43

40

29

45

35

42

34

37

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not Sure

 

12

13

13

16

17

11

17

11

10

13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total

 

100

100

100

100

100

100

100

100

100

100

 

As indicated, Latinos typically report higher levels of Democratic affiliation than Republican affiliation, usually by a factor of 2-1 or more. However, the largest percentage of Latino voters generally identifies itself as “independent.”

SOURCE: Latino Decisions, October 2014.

 

 

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