Obama's Puzzling Immigration Decision

By Sean Trende - June 19, 2012

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At the beginning of August 2008, Obama trailed McCain among whites with only high school diplomas by 13 points, and among those with some college by 14 points, and was only a few points ahead of McCain overall. Gallup found that from Sept. 8-14, McCain scored a 22-point lead over Obama among white voters with high school educations, and a 28-point lead among those with some college.

The financial collapse is what changed this; in late September, McCain’s leads were six and 11 points, respectively. Without this shift, 2008 would have been a very close race; Obama might have lost, even in a year where everything else was going in his favor.

In other words, we might expect Obama to court these voters carefully. But that hasn’t been the story of 2012 so far, and the deportation decision is at odds with such a strategy. Even more of a head-scratcher: These voters are the critical voting bloc in several must-win states for the president, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Michigan.

Now, some may say that the DREAM Act polls well, and this is true. Remember, however, that the parties never campaign on the other side’s best frame of their policies, or even the most accurate frame. “Voluntary individual Social Security accounts for the young” polls fairly well, which is exactly why Democrats run against “Social Security privatization.” Similarly, Republicans won’t run against “stopping deportations of young Latinos brought to this country by their parents.” They’ll run against “amnesty,” which is radioactive with the white working class.

3) Latinos aren’t monolithic. Finally, I think it’s important to remember that Latino voters’ views on immigration aren’t uniform, and that just as there’s a ceiling on the Republican share of this vote, there’s probably something of a floor. (Harry Enten provides some good analysis here.)

I’d just add that in 2008, only 69 percent of Latino voters described illegal immigration as “very” or “extremely” important to them in exit polls. Of these, nearly one-third voted Republican, suggesting that a near-majority of Latinos either thought that illegal immigration wasn’t an important issue, or thought it was and voted Republican anyway.

Remember also that on several controversial ballot issues in California, which supposedly cost Republicans their competitiveness in the state (notwithstanding the fact that the Republican share of the Latino vote in California has been stable since 1988), large portions of the Latino community cast votes that were directly opposed to what is broadly considered their “interest” on immigration issues. Even Jan Brewer managed to win almost 30 percent of the Latino vote.

In short, it’s not really clear what Obama’s tack on immigration really accomplishes, politically speaking. It probably will result in minimal gains among Latino voters, in states with only a few electoral votes. But what it costs him could easily offset those gains, and then some. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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