Just How Much Did Obama’s Delay on Immigration Reform Hurt Democrats?

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Analysis Race

Just How Much Did Obama’s Delay on Immigration Reform Hurt Democrats?

Julianne Hing

As the dust begins to settle from the midterms, analysts are offering a first glimpse into how severely President Obama's hesitation—along with other missteps by Democrats—affected Latinos’ voting behavior.

Before Election Day, commentators and activists predicted that President Obama had undercut Latino support for his party by putting off executive action on immigration reform. Now, as the dust begins to settle from the midterms, analysts are offering a first glimpse into just how severely that hesitation—along with other missteps by Democrats—affected Latinos’ voting behavior.

According to a new poll by the political research firm Latino Decisions, Latino voters and non-voters alike rank immigration at the very top of their personal policy agendas. Between October 29 and November 3, Latino Decisions polled 4,200 Latino voters, eventually releasing the results on Wednesday alongside its sponsors, the Latino Victory Project, Mi Familia Vota, National Council of La Raza, and America’s Voice.

Latino Decisions’ work showed that Latino voters care more deeply about issues that affect their community than candidates’ party affiliations. This year, so close on the heels of Obama’s announcement, Latino Decisions found that while Latinos still voted for Democrats by wide margins, Democrats won a smaller share of the Latino vote than they had in 2012 and 2010. In House of Representatives races, 69 percent of Latinos voted for Democrats, compared with 27 percent who voted for Republicans. And for the Senate, 67 percent of Latinos voted for Democratic candidates, while 28 percent voted for Republicans. (As a point of reference, 75 percent of Latinos backed President Obama in his 2012 re-election.)

Immigration was evidently a factor, too, for those who chose to sit out the 2014 election. According to the Pew Research Center, Tuesday’s election marked the first time in history that more than one in ten people eligible to vote in the United States was Latino; national exit polls estimate that Latinos made up only 8 percent of those who cast ballots on November 4.

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Civic engagement and Latino advocates blame this low turnout on candidates’ and political parties’ negligence of the electorate, especially when it comes to taking action on immigration and voter mobilization. It is difficult to say at this point just how heavily this reluctance to turn out figured into Republicans’ victory, but among Latinos who didn’t vote on Tuesday, 60 percent said that Obama’s decision to delay executive action on immigration reform this fall made them “less enthusiastic” about the Democratic Party.

Prior to the poll release, the 2014 midterm election media obsession with how Obama’s immigration calculus would impact Latinos had been a mostly speculative game. But, said Latino Decisions co-founder Matt Barreto, “for the first time [in this election season], we have evidence to suggest that for some of these voters who didn’t vote, they were mentioning [immigration] as a reason why they were less enthusiastic about Tuesday, November 4.”

Overall, Latino advocacy groups said the midterm results offered several key takeaways for politicians, particularly with regard to Congressional races. “Too many Senate Democrats either ignored or ran away from us. Even in states where our vote could have made a difference the outreach and mobilization efforts were anemic,” National Council of La Raza President and CEO Janet Murguía said.

This was especially true, activists say, in cases when Democratic candidates did support immigration reform, but didn’t adequately make voters aware of their positions.

Barreto points out that in Colorado, where Latinos made up 14 percent of the electorate, Democrat Mark Udall missed out on the opportunity to engage Latinos in his Senate race with Republican Cory Gardner.

According to Latino Decisions’ pre-election poll, just 46 percent of respondents in Colorado knew that Udall supported comprehensive immigration reform, while 47 percent weren’t sure about his stance and 6 percent incorrectly thought he opposed it.

Meanwhile, 21 percent of respondents thought that Gardner supported comprehensive immigration reform. While Gardner’s positions on immigration have shifted over the last year, as a member of the House, he did vote against pro-immigrant legislation. For that matter, Gardner’s official website says that he opposes “giving [unauthorized immigrants] benefits that will only encourage more illegal immigration.”

According to Latino Decisions, nearly one in four Colorado Latinos ended up voting for Gardner, while 71 percent of Latinos voted for Udall—a 16-point drop from the 87 percent of Colorado Latinos who voted for Obama in 2012.

“Colorado is the story of an under-mobilization and … tragic mis-messaging for Latinos,” said Barreto. “There was an opportunity to message on this issue of immigration, to talk to Latinos about the issue.”

In Texas, too, advocates say politicians failed to effectively reach out to locals. Latinos are nearly 40 percent of Texas’ population, and the state has 2.7 million registered Latino voters, according to the Immigration Policy Center. “Yet very few people are focusing on them and turning them out to vote,” said Lydia Camarillo, the vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. “If we targeted those voters it would change the face of Texas.”

Although the reasons for not voting are varied for Latinos—including strict voter registration laws—advocates point out that there is one straightforward way to re-engage much of the population. Sixty-eight percent of non-voting Latinos told Latino Decisions that executive action on immigration could make them more enthusiastic about the Democratic Party in 2016.

“I give the strong recommendation to elected officials and political parties that if you want our community to vote for you, you need to reach out to us,” said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota.

Still, Republicans were not shining examples of immigration advocacy, either. While Democrats failed in actively reaching out to Latinos, Republican posturing and policies have often been explicitly anti-immigrant. La Raza’s Murguía predicts that this will come back to negatively affect the GOP in coming elections, particularly on a federal level.

“If Republicans continue on this trajectory, I think they will have elected the last Republican president for the foreseeable future,” Murguía said. “There will never again be an electoral map and an electorate as favorable to the Republican Party as in 2014.”

That said, Latinos, and the organizations who support them, keep finding themselves in a bind. So long as Latino voter turnout remains low, it is unlikely that they will be able to flex their electoral muscles strongly enough to compel immigration reform throughout the country. At the same time, polling indicates that without stronger outreach by politicians who do support pro-immigration policies, that turnout will remain low. In order to break that cycle, it will take real action from both sides—but perhaps the dismal midterm results could be the catalyst.

In the meantime, that doesn’t mean Latino advocacy groups will stop trumpeting the rise of the Latino electorate. Besides, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 65,000 Latinos in the United States turn 18 every month. The demographic shifts are real, even if Latinos’ political engagement isn’t growing at the same pace.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the percentage of Latinos who supported President Obama in 2012. We regret the error.