The battle for the Latino vote sums up President Barack Obama’s precarious position as he enters the 2012 election season. Sixty-seven percent of Latino voters chose him in 2008. But a poll conducted in August by the blog Latino Decisions showed that only 38 percent of Latino voters were certain to vote for Obama in 2012, down from 49 percent in June.
It’s a measure of the difficult path ahead for the president that the economy doesn’t rank as Latino voters’ greatest concern, though Latinos are suffering an unemployment rate about two points higher than the national average of 9.1 percent. Immigration is the issue the group cares most about, and the lack of immigration reform has been a great disappointment.
During Obama’s first two years in office, about 800,000 undocumented immigrants were deported – a record for any two-year period. Obama’s muscle-flexing and willingness to anger his own base were supposed to entice the GOP to compromise. But the influence of anti-immigrant Tea Partiers and the GOP’s takeover of the House in 2010 ended all hopes of immigration reform during Obama’s current term.
The irony for the administration is that the aftermath of its aggressive deportation record has given new urgency to reform: About a quarter of Latinos report knowing someone who has been deported. The administration has no leverage left to actually initiate or implement any legislation, yet Obama’s re-election hopes may rest on the shoulders of Latino voters who feel betrayed.
In many swing states – particularly Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico – Latinos make up a substantial percentage of the voting population. New Mexico, for example, went Democratic in the 2000 and 2008 presidential elections and Republican in the 2004 election. About 40 percent of eligible voters in the state are Latinos, and in the 2008 election, 69 percent of them voted for Obama. But in 2010, the state elected a Republican governor, Susana Martinez, a Latina. Nevada also elected a Republican governor who is Latino.
Latinos now make up more than 16 percent of the U.S. population and account for more than half of the nation’s growth rate from 2000 to 2010. In polls, they show a strong preference for progressive economic policies. Yet this combination of strong population growth and a distinctly progressive economic philosophy doesn’t ensure electoral success for Democrats.
Over the summer, the Obama administration did attempt some bridge building: It appointed Katherine Archuleta, a Latina, as its national political director and announced a major revision of its deportation policy. Many undocumented immigrants are now much less likely to be deported than they were a year ago. But those measures, though welcome, are probably too little and too late.
For their part, Republicans are content to stick with their broader strategy of blocking any positive reforms with the assurance that Democrats will suffer the most losses if voters are angry. The GOP is also attempting to obscure the anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric of its base by appealing to the social conservatism and high levels of religiosity among Latinos. At the Values Voters Summit held in Washington, D.C., in October, there was a breakfast session devoted to the topic of “Messaging and Mobilizing the Hispanic Community.”
A year out from the election, though, the greatest challenge for Democrats isn’t the threat that Latinos will begin voting Republican in large numbers. The Latino Decisions poll found that only 22 percent of Latinos were certain to vote Republican or willing to consider the option. The greatest challenge to Democrats is that Latinos simply won’t show up at the polls to choose between bad and worse: a political party that has promised them much and delivered nothing, and a party that has gone mad on the issue they care most about.