The June 27th headline in the Wall Street Journal trumpeted the arrival of a new era in the politics of immigration. "Obama Gains Among Latinos: Poll Finds Strong Support Among Public for Softer Stance on Youth Deportations." The piece noted:
"Americans by a wide margin favor President Barack Obama's new policy of halting deportations of many young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, a new poll shows. In all, nearly seven in 10 Americans said they favor the administration's new immigration policy, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Hispanic support approached 90%. The move could pay big political dividends for the president if it boosts Hispanic support for him in pivotal battleground states in November."
What a difference from just a few years ago. The old conventional wisdom, popularized by Rahm Emanuel and others, went something like this: immigration is a "third rail" issue for Democrats; lean into a pro-immigrant stance at your peril; if you do, conservatives will mobilize, swing voters will swing in their direction, and pro-immigrant voters, especially Latinos, do not care enough or count enough to make up the difference.
But the new reality stands this conventional wisdom on its head. Harry Reid demonstrated it in 2010 when he leaned into the DREAM Act, stood up to Sharron Angle and ended up mobilizing Hispanic voters and winning over swing voters on his way to a remarkable victory. President Obama demonstrated it on June 15th with his executive action protecting hundreds of thousands of DREAMers. They both found that by leaning into the issue and taking bold action they mobilize Latino and other pro-immigrant voters, attract swing voters who favor solutions over paralysis and pragmatism over nativism, and leaves Republicans between a nativist hard rock (their loud by not large anti-immigrant wing) and a demographic hard place (in 2012, the GOP's need to win 40% of the Latino vote when Romney is currently polling in the mid-20s).
Just look at the recent polling, including Quinnipiac's poll of general voters in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the oversample of Latino respondents in the referenced an NBC/WSJ/Telemundo poll, and Latino Decisions/America's Voice's look at five "Latino battleground" states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia). Each shows overwhelmingly positive news regarding the President's recent decision to allow DREAM-eligible young people to apply for work permits.
Quinnipiac's latest polling in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania found that by a 62-30% margin in FL, 54-39% in OH, and 51-41% in PA, voters support the move. As polling guru Mark Blumenthal of Huffington Post wrote, "the Obama campaign got good news, as registered in this poll, in the strong positive reactions to the new immigration executive order recently announced by the Obama administration. Majorities in all three states expressed support for 'a new policy in which young illegal immigrants who came to the country as children will be able to obtain work permits and will not face deportation.'" Greg Sargent of the Washington Post's Plum Line blog noted that even independent voters support the DREAMer protections (even as 6 out 10 independents in each state said it wouldn't change their vote either way). That's the politics of immigration in a nutshell: most voters support common sense policies, but they vote on other issues. Immigration is only a defining issue for Latino and immigrant voters - the fastest growing group of new voters in the country - and a small and shrinking group of anti-immigrant Republicans.
Those state numbers are consistent with the national findings in the NBC/WSJ/Telemundo poll, which found:
"N]early every segment of the population--whites, male voters, suburbanites, rural voters, even union members--supported the move to stop the deportations. But those identifying themselves as Republicans narrowly opposed the move, 48% to 47%. Nearly half of all Americans now think immigration helps the U.S. more than it hurts, while 39% said its hurts more than helps, down from 52% who held the negative view in 2007.
Clearly, sensible immigration policy is popular with all the voter groups Obama and Romney are fighting over.
As for Hispanic voters? Olvídate (that's Spanish for "fuggedaboutit"). In the Hispanic oversample part of the NBC/WSJ/Telemundo poll, Latino voters said they care about immigration and broadly favor President Obama's handling of immigration matters. The poll found that 84% of Latinos surveyed knew about the DREAMer protection announcement, and 87% of Latino respondents were in favor of the policy (63% "strongly favor" and 24% "somewhat favor").
When asked, "How important to you is the issue of immigration?" - a combined 93% of Latinos stated it was important (a plurality of 48% saying "extremely," 24% saying "quite," and 21% saying "somewhat." Only 7% of Latino respondents said immigration was "not that important."
Finally, earlier this week, Latino Decisions and America's Voice released the latest installment of our Latino voter poll in five battleground states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia. As the poll results make clear, Democrats remain firmly in the lead with Latino voters, and have expanded their advantage following the President's decision on behalf of young undocumented immigrants. According to Matt Barreto, Principal at Latino Decisions and an Adjunct Professor of political science at the University of Washington:
The battleground polling data shows quite convincingly that the Obama DHS announcement created a Latino enthusiasm bump. The question now is whether that can be sustained until Election Day.
On a press call we held Wednesday, June 27th to discuss the Battleground States poll, Barreto said "we had the great fortune of being in the field with a poll when the President made his move on DREAMers." Thus, Barreto and his colleagues at Latino Decisions were able to compare surveys completed before and after June 15th, the date of the DREAMer protection announcement. The finding: Obama's approval ratings on immigration shot up 16 percentage points and he gained 10 points in the overall ballot.
The President wasn't the only beneficiary of this bounce: the Democrats' advantage with Latinos in a generic House match-up rose 10 percentage points following the announcement. Four of these five states will also see competitive Senate battles this cycle, and Democrats are polling well there too.
Simultaneously, Romney's evasive response to the question of whether he would keep or repeal the DREAMer policy change, and refusal to comment on the substance of the Supreme Court's decision about the Arizona anti-immigration law, have hurt him with Latino voters over the past two weeks. In our poll, Romney lost 10 percentage points in the overall ballot. This, combined with the enthusiasm bump for Latino voters, means he is poised to win a smaller share of a larger pool of Latino voters. After all, it's not just the percentage of Latino voters choosing one party or another that matters; it's also number of voters who show up at the polls.
What does all this mean? The President gets the new politics of immigration and Mitt Romney doesn't. The President shook free from the old CW that counseled caution and avoidance and ran to the gunfire. The result? Latinos are more supportive and enthusiastic than ever, swing voters like that he took action and like the action he took and Republicans have been left looking flat-footed, flummoxed and fringy.
Welcome to the new era of immigration politics. Look for Democrats to keep leaning into the issue to reinforce their advantage on immigration. And look for Republicans to keep alienating the growing Latino population until enough GOPers decide it's time to sue for peace on immigration reform so that they may, once again, have a chance to see the inside of the White House.