Conventional wisdom is that President Barack Obama won re-election in November in part because of shifting demographics and the rising Latino vote. The research confirms it, but also tells us another story: both parties have much to gain by courting Latino voters, and much to lose if they assume November’s pattern will be repeated with no additional effort.
New polling analysis by Latino Decisions shows that for the first time in history, Latino voters can plausibly claim to have decisively influenced an election. If Latinos had supported Mitt Romney by the same margins they had supported George W. Bush in 2004, the outcome would have swung in favor of Mitt Romney.
However, this does not mean that the tide of politics has inevitably turned towards Democrats. In fact, Latino voters are the most “moveable” racial voting bloc, meaning that both parties have an opportunity to win Latino votes, provided they reach out to the community in meaningful ways.
Thirty-one percent of Latinos say they would be more likely to vote Republican if the party took a lead in passing immigration reform. Had those 31 percent actually voted for Mitt Romney in the fall, he would have won the popular vote. The Republican Party has much to gain by supporting humane immigration reform.
By the same token, Democrats could benefit from reaching out to Latino voters. The research shows that in many close congressional races ultimately won by Republicans, the outcome would have been different had Democrats encouraged Latino voters to go to the polls. Also worth noting is that the Republican Party has a history of supporting candidates of color in majority-white districts, while the Democrats do not.
One figure from the research goes a long way to explain why immigration is such an important issue to Latino voters: 60 percent of them know someone who is undocumented. When policymakers advocate hardline immigration positions that would ultimately cause undocumented immigrants to suffer hardship, Latino voters are able to connect these policies with people they care about.
This is an association that has real political results: when President Obama passed the executive order granting relief to many undocumented immigrants that arrived in the U.S. as children, 58 percent of Latino voters said they felt more enthusiastic about him as president.
As Congress moves to consider immigration reform, they should take comfort in the fact that crafting more humane laws will benefit both parties in the future. Latino voters are a force that can no longer be ignored.
Janelle Tupper is campaigns assistant for Sojourners.