10/09/2012 04:12 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

New Americans, New Voters, New Politics

After the first Presidential debate in Denver, two things became clear.

The first is that Romney won, Obama lost, and the race just got tighter. With President Obama's dispirited performance and Governor Romney's assertive stance, the President's presumed cushion has shrunk and every single vote counts - particularly in the swing states and districts where the election will be decided.

The second is that both candidates forget to mention immigration in a debate about domestic issues. Part of that was due to the meandering moderation by PBS newscaster Jim Leher but it wasn't just that: given multiple opportunities to discuss the economic importance of comprehensive immigration reform or the role of government in promoting immigrant integration, both candidates punted, offering not a single word on the topic.

The two points are related and in politically important ways. In a new report called Rock the (Naturalized) Vote, Jared Sanchez and I find that naturalized Americans - immigrants who have become citizens by choice - constitute over 8 percent of the voting age citizen population. Perhaps more significant is that the newly naturalized - those naturalized since 2000 - comprise 3.6 percent of America's voting age citizen population.

Why focus on the newly naturalized? Research has suggested that this group, like other Americans, prioritizes jobs, healthcare, and education as top concerns - but they also tend to see a candidate's stance on immigration as a sort of litmus test. Moreover, those who naturalize in periods in which immigration is a "hot" issue - think about the controversies about Arizona's immigration law and the Dream Act - tend to register and vote at rates that are substantially higher than citizens who naturalize in less dramatic times.

But even if these New Americans are highly motivated, can they really make a difference? In the 2004 presidential election (the last time a standing president was running), the margin of victory in Nevada was only 2.6 percent while in Florida and Colorado that margin was around 5 percent. The current share of the voting age population that is newly naturalized in these states: 5.1 percent in Nevada, 6 percent in Florida, and 2.1 percent (nearly half of the margin) in Colorado.

These New Americans might also be important in key areas such as the northern suburbs of Virginia - a place where some say the presidential election will be decided. In a set of interactive maps that are derived from the research, we find that in the northern Virginian suburbs most frequently mentioned by the pundits (Fairfax and Prince Williams Counties), the share of the voting age population that is newly naturalized is just over ten percent.

The numbers may be lost on some politicians but they have not been lost on immigrant advocates. Efforts are underway to register and mobilize new Americans, including a "Ve y Vota" program run by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) and state-specific efforts such as a non-partisan voter mobilization effort run by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and an Oregon-based New Americans Voter Project that seeks to register new citizens at their naturalization ceremonies.

The maps and our report can help with these efforts to register voters -- important because evidence suggests that once registered, New Americans vote at rates similar to those of the U.S.-born. But the research is also intended for a broader purpose: to prompt a more civil, balanced and productive conversation about immigration.

After all, nothing stirs balance like the sense that one might be punished for imbalance - to wit, Governor Romney's attempt to walk back his "47 percent" comment once he realized that some of those alleged deadbeats were among his electoral base. The Governor might also want to rethink how talk of "self-deportation" sounds to those who were lucky enough to become legal citizens - but who have family members and friends that remain in legal limbo.

And it's not just the Republican side of the aisle. President Obama's decision to provide temporary "deferred action" status to undocumented youth was sensible policy but it was also sensible politics. After not making progress on comprehensive immigration reform even as his administration stepped up deportations, he had to do something, particularly given the active organizing of the affected youth and their allies. And if he is fortunate enough to win a second term, he will be expected to do more, including pushing some wavering Democrats to truly commit to the Dream Act.

The message is simple: if both parties take every vote seriously, then they'll need to listen to the concerns of newly naturalized voters. That means less partisan politicking and more common ground solutions when discussing immigration, immigrants, and the future of our nation.