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The Vanishing Hispanic Vote. Why lack of immigration reform could hurt Obama in November

One big factor seems to loom over all others when it comes to measuring Latino voter intent: Barack Obama's pledge in 2008 to tackle immigration reform during his first year in office.

By David Adams, Timothy Pratt and Carlos de Cordoba

STORY TOOLS

In July 2008 the candidate Barack Obama made a pledge to Hispanic voters.

“For eight long years, we have had a president who has made all kinds of promises to Latinos on the campaign trail, but failed to live up to them in the White House,” Obama told a Washington convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). “We need a president who isn’t going to walk away from something as important as comprehensive [immigration] reform when it becomes politically unpopular. That’s the commitment I’m making to you ... and I will make it a top priority in my first year as President.”

Sure enough, in November that year Latinos turned out in record numbers, voting overwhelmingly 2:1 for Obama, accounting for 9 percent of the electorate. Fast forward two years, and how times have changed. So much so, that some Democrats fear they may be staring at a repeat of 1994 when president Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats” lost control of Congress after only two years.

Economic recession, unemployment, the war in Iraq and the bruising healthcare debate have taken their toll on voters. But Hispanics have another axe to grind. Whatever happened to Obama’s pledge, they ask? The consequences are evident in recent polling. Obama’s approval rating among Hispanics is down from 79 percent in April 2009 to 58 percent in June 2010, according to the Pew Research Center for People & the Press. Even more worrying for Democrats is the accelerating rate of decline, falling 13 points between January and June. (A July Gallup Poll found Obama approval among Hispanics had fallen as low as 55 percent.)

Meanwhile, the proportion of Hispanics who disapprove of his job performance has risen from 18 percent to 33 percent. By contrast Obama’s job rating has held steady this year among non-Hispanic blacks and whites. The vast majority of African Americans (91 percent) continue to approve of Obama’s job performance. Among white non-Hispanics, 38 percent approve, while 52 percent disapprove, which is unchanged from January.

Add to that a natural tendency for voter turnout to drop sharply in mid-term elections, and things begin to look gloomy for Democrats. Some Republicans are even hoping to pick up Latino votes in parts of the country, though that still seems unlikely, analysts say. “It’s not a question of whether the Democrats are in danger of losing Hispanic votes to Republicans. It’s a question of turnout,” says Fernand Amandi, vice-president of Bendixen & Amandi, the Miami polling firm.

One big factor seems to loom over all others when it comes to measuring Latino voter intent: the Obama pledge regarding immigration reform, and Arizona’s now infamous State Bill 1070, which requires police to verify the status of someone they have stopped or arrested if they suspect that the person is in the country illegally. Amandi and others are banking on the backlash from SB 1070 to re-energize the Latino vote, much as occurred in 2006 when immigration was a hot issue, along with the war in Iraq. “In 2006 Republicans used immigration as a wedge issue, but it ended up backfiring,” Amandi says.

A foreshadowing of how Hispanic voters will respond to mid- term elections across the Southwest may have occurred in late July in Las Vegas. In a somewhat convoluted series of events, the local Univision television affiliate’s news director, Adriana Arévalo, wrote in her weekly column for El Tiempo that Republican candidate for governor Brian Sandoval, when asked how he would feel if authorities stopped his children to ask for their papers, responded, “My children don’t look Hispanic.” Controversy in the blogosphere, and, eventually, large dailies followed.

But the issue is clear: the Arizona law, as well as copycat versions in at least 20 states, may well be a touchstone for Hispanic voters when it comes to choosing state and national candidates in midterm elections. The Arizona law has “galvanized and mobilized Hispanic voters across the country and, in particular, in the Southwest,” says Andréz Ramírez, vice president for Hispanic programs at NDN, a Washington think tank. Ramírez also points to a July poll by the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) showing that Hispanic voters in California, Florida, Texas and Colorado named immigration the top issue in deciding for whom to cast their votes. Ramírez says he has never seen the topic poll so high.

In Las Vegas, Sandoval’s Democratic opponent, Rory Reid, who is the son of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, marshaled support from two of Nevada’s three Hispanic state legislators, who blasted Sandoval for being out of touch with Hispanics and their issues despite his last name. Ironically, Reid, the non-Hispanic in the race, speaks Spanish well and is considered more in touch with Hispanic issues.

In Nevada’s other main race, Sen. Reid is facing a tough challenge by Sharron Angle, a Republican candidate with support from the Tea Party. In Texas, the pace of the governor’s race also has shown apparent fallout from the Arizona law, as before-and-after-SB 1070 polls register a complete turnaround among Hispanic voters, going from 53-41 in favor of Republican candidate Rick Perry, to 55-21 in favor of Democrat Bill White. Pundits see the change as tied to opposition to the law.

In Colorado, Denver Mayor and Democrat John Hickenlooper’s race became more polarized around the issue in late July when arch anti-illegal immigration zealot and former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo entered the race for governor. Of course, Arizona’s law has polled favorably among voters as a group in that state and across the nation, so it remains to be seen how conservative voters, not to mention white swing voters, will respond. As for Arizona itself, Ramírez says national and local organizations, including his own, are on the ground registering Hispanics and building get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, the Hispanic Republican candidate Susan Martinez has also moved to the right on immigration, not only supporting SB 1070, but promising to repeal her own state’s permissive provisions such as allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. In the state with the largest Hispanic population, it remains to be seen if her ethnicity alone carries the day. Republicans have also done a good job recruiting new Hispanic candidates. Endorsed by Sarah Palin, Martinez is hoping to become the first female Hispanic governor in U.S. history, and currently leads in the polls. In fact, in an examination of 74 elections this year for governor or U.S. Senate, Slate magazine observed there are no Democratic Hispanic nominees.

“There are very few new Hispanic Democratic candidates,” says Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington who is also a partner in a polling firm Latino Decisions. “The party needs to be involved in recruiting Latinos. The Democrats haven’t done that this year,” he says. A poll of 1,500 young Hispanic voters by Democracia USA in June is not encouraging. Less than 10 percent were paying close attention to the mid-term elections. Democrats need that vote especially. An estimated 50,000 Hispanic citizens turn 18 every month, making the under-30s the fastest growing segment of the Hispanic vote.

While analysts aren’t clear, some polling indicates that Hispanics remain politically engaged, and SB 1070 has re-excited them, says Arturo Vargas, NALEO's Executive Director. Vargas expects a good Latino turnout, as high as 75 percent. “The difference this time is that they are being motivated by fear and anger, rather than hope, or a more positive outlook for the future.” But the outcome is less certain, and often depends on different parts of the country, and who the candidate is.

For example, in California, the Republican candidate for governor, Meg Whitman, reversed positions on immigration after securing the primary, and now opposes the Arizona law. But in Florida, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, has flip-flopped the other way, and now backs the Arizona law. “Some candidates may feel the Latino vote is important to them, while others may feel they can win without it, and can benefit by being tough on immigration. They will do whatever it takes to be elected,” Vargas says.

Back in 2008 Obama stressed that borders needed to be more secure while bringing undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows.” It was time, he said, “to reconcile our values and principles as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. That’s what this election is all about.” To be sure, Obama has had more unwanted distrac- tions in his first 18 months than almost any president in history. In July 2008 the full enormity of the depth of the global recession had yet to hit, and oil wasn’t spilling in the Gulf.

The president’s defenders argue that Hispanics may have set their expectations too high, given the political realities. After all, it was Republican resistance to immigration reform in Congress that stalled the issue, not the White House, they say. Rather than walk away, Hispanics should stand by him. Even so, it wasn’t until July 1 this year that Obama delivered his first major address on immigration since taking office. Obama noted he had been obliged to devote attention to “the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression,” along with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, reforms of the financial, health and education systems, as well as clean energy. But immigration had not been forgotten, he said. He announced Democrats were “ready to move forward” with “a practical, common sense approach.” However, he said, Republicans were standing in the way. Reform “cannot pass without Republican votes. That is the political and mathematical reality. “ The speech left many Latinos cold, wondering what happened to the Obama of 2008.

Arizona’s law enjoys broad national support (64 percent to 32 percent). So the inevitable question is will SB 1070 drive Latinos to the polls in November? Or will Obama’s failure to pass immigration reform keep them away? Some observers compare the Arizona law to Proposition 187 in California, which galvanized a million legal residents to seek citizenship. That 1994 ballot initiative was designed to create a state-run citizenship screening system in order to prohibit undocumented immigrants from using social services.

“It both polarizes and motivates constituencies. It’s a clear benefit for candidates that see themselves as mobilizing the xenophobic, anti-immigrant crowd, as well as the immigrant vote that is on the other side,” says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C Velasquez Institute, a public policy and research center in San Antonio, Texas. “Here’s the rub. Republican sectors that embrace the strategy are more coherent and numerous,” he adds. Gonzalez expects some Hispanic voters to stay home and others to undervote - abstaining in congressional races. Unless something dramatic changes the debate between now and November, the immigration issue may balance itself out politically.

It’s still early though. The Obama administration may be considering bypassing Congress, some reports say, in order to approve residency for Central Americans currently in Temporary Protected Status as well as the children of undocumented immigrants, the so-called Dream Act. That might soothe Hispanic voters, without poking a hornets’ nest of outrage on the other side. “It’s like the perfect porridge, not too hot, not too cold,” Gonzalez says. “It would be a sort of down-payment on immigration reform, a show of faith.” But above all, to secure the Latino vote, the president needs to address Latinos directly and not mince, says Jorge Mursuli, the Miami-based president of Democracia USA, a Hispanic voter registration organization.

“He needs to say, ‘The discriminatory behavior you are experiencing is not OK. I’m a black man and I know what it’s like. I’m on your side.’”

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