By Francis Wilkinson
The importance of the Hispanic vote to President Barack Obama’s re-election chances is practically impossible to overstate. Yet the significance of the Hispanic vote to the long-term prospects of the Republican Party is arguably greater still.
A Latino Decisions poll of 5 swing states released June 17 revealed that Obama’s executive action to ease the pressure on young illegal immigrants, enabling them to avoid deportation and apply for work permits, has resonated with Hispanic voters.
A previous Latino Decisions poll had found widespread discontentment with Obama’s record 1 million deportations; in January, 41 percent of Hispanic voters said they had grown less enthusiastic about the president as a result. In the swing state poll released Sunday, however, 49 percent of Hispanics surveyed in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia said the president’s halt on youth deportations would make them more enthusiastic about Obama, with only 14 percent saying it would make them less so.
If a rise in “enthusiasm” leads to a rise in Hispanic turnout to close to 2008 levels, it could make the difference for Obama in some or all of those five states -- and possibly others besides -- in November. Colorado, for example, has 455,000 eligible Hispanic voters. In 2010, Democrat Michael Bennet won a U.S. Senate seat there by a margin of about 29,000 votes.
Among Hispanic voters, Obama is crushing Mitt Romney: A Gallup poll conducted from May 14 to June 3 found Hispanic voters preferring Obama to Romney by 67 percent to 26 percent.
There are perhaps 2 million more eligible Hispanic voters in 2012 compared with 2008. If Hispanics are firmly in Obama’s camp and newly energized to vote, Romney has a tough call to make. He could reverse his opposition to the Dream Act, which would appeal to Hispanic independents but offend his base. Or he could try to squeak to victory by relying almost entirely on white votes, given Obama’s difficulty with white working-class voters.
If Romney wins the gamble, he can use his presidency to build bridges with Hispanics, the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group, perhaps by promoting a Republican version of the Dream Act and walking back his campaign rhetoric on related issues. (A better economy certainly wouldn’t hurt.) If he loses the gamble, however, life gets very interesting for the Grand Old Party.
In a second term, Obama would have enormous incentive to try to lock in Hispanic loyalty to the Democratic Party. Republicans would then have to decide whether to surrender on the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform, knowing that if they went along with Obama, he -- not they -- would get the credit. The alternative would be to continue blocking immigration legislation that, for many Hispanics, is a signifier of attitudes toward Hispanics as neighbors and fellow citizens. As a 2010 LatinoMetrics survey found, 30 percent of Hispanic voters considered racism to be a factor in anti-immigrant views. After calls for electric fences and the like in this year's Republican presidential primary, it's doubtful that number has declined. If Republicans opt for a continued stonewall on immigration, they risk alienating Hispanic voters for the long haul.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
-0- Jun/18/2012 13:58 GMT