11/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Latino Vote: Courting an Increasingly Sophisticated Community

In the wake of the $700 billion bailout package proposed by Congress last week, Hispanics have made it clear that the economy is their number one issue. However, it is Congress' failure to pass a sweeping immigration reform package last year that may ultimately drive the Latino vote in this year's Presidential election.

With 46 million Latinos currently living in the U.S., Latinos represent 15% of the U.S. population, making them America's fastest growing segment. An estimated 17.9 million Latinos are eligible to vote this year, thanks to the efforts of groups like Voto Latino - significantly more than voted in 2004.

But it's not just the numbers of Latino voters that make a difference this election - it's where they live. Many of the Latinos registered to vote are located in key battleground states -- like New Mexico, where Hispanics make up 37% of state's eligible electorate; Florida (14%); Nevada (12%) and Colorado (12%). And these swing states are all in play for 2008.

The two parties are clearly divided on the issue of immigration, with the division centered on the question of earned legalization, or "amnesty" as the conservative wing of the Republican Party calls it. There was a clear opportunity before the election to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but the conservatives in Congress derailed the legislation, which Senator McCain authored and sponsored. The McCain-Kennedy bill (SR 1433) was one of the most comprehensive immigration reform bills ever written, and offered not just enforcement policies and a tighter border controls, but also a viable guest worker program to cope with the continued demands of the labor market, and an earned path to citizenship for undocumented residents working and living in the U.S.

After the conservative outcry over the bill, Senator McCain backed away from his own legislation, shifting his emphasis to enforcement, focusing on deportation and tougher border security. He explained his reversal in a 2007 GOP debate: "Very seldom have I seen an issue that aroused this much passion with the American people. No one is for amnesty. I and the president came forward with a plan that we thought was comprehensive and workable with the priority being border security, which remains my position. Why we failed is because the American people have lost trust and confidence in us. We have to succeed, because there are 12 million people who are in this country illegally, which is de facto amnesty."

Senator Obama backs comprehensive immigration reform that offers a "path to legalization" with certain conditions, including mandating that immigrants learn English and pay a fine. Obama also supports tougher border security measures utilizing fencing and technology tools. He has also called for stronger enforcement against those who employ illegal immigrants, along with enhanced labor rights and a guest worker program where jobs are first offered to U.S. citizens.

Which of these positions will resonate most with voters? A new poll out this month from the New Democrat Network (NDN) offers an interesting glimpse of how voters in the four key swing states of New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and Colorado view the issue. Not only do these voters overwhelmingly support comprehensive immigration reform, including a "path to citizenship," but they also have a positive view of undocumented immigrants, believing they are here to work and seek a better life. They blame the federal government and Congress for failing to fix the broken immigration system.

Based on these views, it is no surprise that Senator Obama is performing much better in these states than Senator Kerry did in 2004, putting them all in play. However, what's most interesting is that, in each state, 14-20% of the Hispanic electorate remains undecided, which translates into two to six percent of the statewide vote in each state, significant enough to tip the state either way. And, if the opinion polls hold true, those who are still undecided are more likely to vote for the candidate who supports comprehensive reform rather than enforcement alone.

This leaves Senator McCain in the unenviable position of having to talk tough for the conservative wing of his party without alienating the Latino voters who are so critical to the outcome of this election.

The Republican gains George W. Bush made among Latino voters in 2004 have all but been erased. After the disastrous 2006 elections, which some strategists blamed on the Republicans' hard-line stance on immigration, the Republican Party brought in Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL) to help guide the RNC, particularly through the treacherous waters of the immigration debate. He left his position in 2007, which many saw as an acknowledgment that the hard-liners had won on this issue.

In a column last year in the Washington Post, Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson notes: "I have never seen an issue [immigration] where the short-term interests of Republican presidential candidates in the primaries were more starkly at odds with the long-term interests of the party itself. At least five swing states that Bush carried in 2004 are rich in Hispanic voters -- Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Florida. Bush won Nevada by just over 20,000 votes. A substantial shift of Hispanic voters toward the Democrats in these states could make the national political map unwinnable for Republicans. Some in the party seem pleased. They should be terrified."

It remains to be seen if Senator McCain will buck the conservatives and find his voice on this issue by articulating a clear strategy that lives up to the promise of his earlier Senate bill.

We've come too far on immigration reform to stop short of that goal. We've already succeeded in strengthening our border security, tripling the number of deportations of criminal aliens and making it harder for employers to illegally employ undocumented workers. Now it's time we pass a comprehensive immigration reform plan that brings the 12 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and into a legal system of employment.

Mickey Ibarra is former White House director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs during the Clinton Administration and Founder and Chairman of the nonpartisan Latino Leaders Network.