One of the great unanswered questions about the 2012 election is how the nation's 10 million Latino voters will cast their ballots. In 2008, they favored President Obama by more than a 2-1 margin, helping him capture Florida and sweep the Southwestern "swing" states, including Colorado and Nevada. But facing double-digit unemployment and Obama's broken promises on immigration reform, Latinos are disaffected from the president and aren't especially energized about voting for him. The latest Gallup poll has Obama's approval rating among Hispanics down to 48%, the lowest of his presidency, and down from 60% in January of this year.
Still, we're not about to witness a full-scale Latino stampede toward the GOP. That's never happened, in fact. In 2004, George W. Bush, who backed comprehensive immigration reform, captured 44% of the Latino vote, a GOP record. But, as past elections have demonstrated, Republicans don't need to win an outright majority of Latinos to "win" the Latino vote, whose importance, nationally, is still largely measured as a "counter-weight" to the non-Latino vote. In 2012, if white voters overwhelmingly favor the Republican presidential candidate, keeping Obama down near 35%, compared to 43% in 2008, even a modest Latino shift back to the GOP - like the 38% the party won in last year's mid-terms, their largest share ever in an off-year election - could easily spell disaster for Obama.
Why is the Latino vote not quite as important in its own right as both parties claim? Because, in fact, Latinos don't vote their "numbers." Much of the population (over a third, in fact) is simply too young to vote, a relatively high percentage (about a quarter) aren't U.S. citizens, and a substantial number are here illegally. As a result, while 16% of the US population is Latino, just 9% of voters are. And their influence tends to be felt regionally because the population is also highly concentrated. Obviously, that influence is much higher in states like California, where nearly half the Latino population lives. But California is already a "safe" Blue state. Far more critical are the "battleground" states, especially Florida, where roughly 22% of the electorate in Latino, and the Southwestern "swing" states, where Latinos range from a low of 10% of the electorate in Colorado to a high of almost 40% in New Mexico.
Latinos, though, aren't just voters; for Democrats, at least, they're also base voters. So whether they mobilize or not can make a huge difference to the outcome of an election, just as it can with trade unions, or other base groups. For example, last November, a late surge by highly-organized Latino Democrats in Nevada was largely responsible for preventing the defeat of Senate majority leader Harry Reid, whose opponent, Tea party extremist, Sharron Angle, had a 5 point lead in most polls entering the last two weeks of the campaign. But Angle, with victory in sight, inexplicably launched into an attack on illegal immigration that had strong overtones of blatant racism, and the misstep alienated independents and galvanized Latino base voters who surged to the polls and ensured Reid's re-election.
The Reid-Angle contest has been taken as illustrative of how vulnerable Republicans can be electorally if they continue to adhere to a hard-line on immigration. That seems to be true in parts of the Southwest and in California, but it's not true in other parts of the country. One important mitigating factor is whether Republican opposition to illegal immigration verges into broader opposition to immigrants as a whole, and to Latinos, specifically. That was the case with Angle - and with former Rep. Tom Tancredo in Colorado, whose crass "nativism" helped a Democrat win that state's Senate race - but it isn't necessarily the case elsewhere. For example, Republican Bob McDonnell upset the heavily-favored Democratic candidate in the Virginia governor's race last year, thanks in part to his aggressive outreach to Latinos and other immigrant groups and to a tactical decision to shift the immigration discussion away from mass deportation towards the broader issue of "assimilation."
A second migrating factor is the ethnicity of the GOP candidate. Republicans ran a dozen or more Latino candidates last November, all of them espousing a hard-line on illegal immigration, and at least six of them won, including Marco Rubio in a hotly-contested three-way Senate race in Florida and Susana Martinez in the governor's race in New Mexico. Martinez, the first Latina governor in US history, won 40% of the state's Latino vote despite endorsing an Arizona-style crackdown law. And Rubio won 55% of the Latino vote in Florida even though he questioned whether illegal immigrants should even be counted in the US Census. The lesson: with so few visible Latino leaders on the national stage - only two US senators, and two governors (both Republican, in fact) - shared ethnicity can, to a certain extent, trump policy substance. Democrats, if they expect to hold on to Latino voters, need to run more Latino candidates, or they'll risk getting upstaged.
For all of these reasons, the Obama administration - and Democrats - are rightly worried about the Latino vote. The Bush wing of the GOP is already way out in front with an unprecedented Spanish-language advertising campaign attacking Obama's record on jobs and the deficit, and appealing to Latinos to take a fresh look at the GOP. That's forced Democrats to respond by highlighting Obama's oft-stated commitment to Latinos on education and immigration, and by rallying local Latino leadership networks, all the while attacking Republicans as the party of "intolerance."
The problem for Obama? Latino patience, and not just on immigration, is wearing thin. Republicans may not convince many Latino base voters to switch, but like the general population, a sizable percentage of Latinos are "swing" voters who seem increasingly open to the GOP's message, and even to some of its candidates. Rick Perry has earned 40% of the Latino vote in Texas in past elections, and should he become the GOP nominee, his gutsy endorsement of tuition aid for illegal immigrants could attract fresh support from Latino voters. But even the latest polls for Mitt Romney, who's running to the right of Perry on illegal immigration, shows him gaining an unprecedented 62% of the Latino vote in Florida, and a heady 37% of the Latino vote nationwide, well above the 31% that John McCain earned in 2008, and a clear indication that immigration is unlikely to be the defining issue for most Latinos next year.
Romney, in a clever gambit, has already said that he's likely to name Florida's Rubio as his VP running mate if he wins the Republican nomination. With that precedent-setting gesture - also, a clever bid to woo Tea party voters who adore Rubio - the GOP ticket could well gain 40% support among Latinos, easily tipping the scale to the Republicans in the key battleground states - even as the party's right-wing continues to push for Jim Crow-type laws to drive illegal immigrants out of Republican-friendly states in the South and elsewhere where Latinos are vastly outnumbered.
Obama, it seems, is stuck: too weak politically to push for further action on immigration reform legislatively, while too fearful of a voter backlash to accomplish milder reforms via executive order, as his Latino base demands. He's thus left to hope - as he did last November - that stepped up negative ads against the GOP, coupled with another round of high-profile civil rights lawsuits against rebel states like Alabama and Georgia, will convince most Latino voters to stay put. Most undoubtedly will, but barring real signs of economic progress, including a reversal of the latest rapid rise in Latino joblessness - to nearly 20% in some Western states, far surpassing Black unemployment - it won't be enough to make a decisive difference.