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Obama's Puzzling Immigration Decision

Obama's Puzzling Immigration Decision

By Sean Trende - June 19, 2012


President Obama made waves last week by announcing significant changes to the government's stance on the deportation of certain illegal immigrants. Most analysts portrayed the decision as a smart move to shore up Obama's flagging standing with Latino voters.

I'm far less certain. Setting aside the actual merits of the policy -- and we can’t pretend that a decision announced in June of an election year was made solely on the merits of the policy -- I think the decision will probably wind up a net negative for the president. Three points in particular stand out:

1) Latinos are underrepresented in swing states. While the Latino vote is frequently portrayed as a critical voting bloc, in truth it is concentrated in only a few swing states with just a handful of electoral votes. The only states where Latinos make up more than 10 percent of the electorate are: Arizona (16 percent of the electorate in 2008), California (18 percent), Colorado (13 percent), Florida (14 percent), Nevada (15 percent), New Mexico (41 percent), and Texas (20 percent).

Of these, only Colorado, Florida, and Nevada are swing states; New Mexico and Arizona are at best borderline swing states. In Florida, the Latino vote largely (though decreasingly) comprises voters of Cuban descent and is therefore atypical of other Latino electorates.

So in the end, we’re talking about Colorado and Nevada as the states where this is likely to produce dividends of any size, for a total of 15 electoral votes.

2) There is a trade-off here. Fifteen electoral votes could still be crucial in a close election. But here’s the rub: The analyses that focus only on the potential effect among Latino voters miss half of the equation: The potential effect among white voters.

I’ve made this point before, but consider the case of Arizona. For many liberal commentators, the silver lining to the state’s immigration bill was that it presaged the eventual death of the state’s Republican Party. By alienating Latino voters, Republicans would soon find it impossible to forge winning coalitions in the state.

To be sure, Latino voters were alienated. In 2004, George W. Bush won 43 percent of that group in Arizona. Four years later, John McCain won 41 percent. In 2010, Jan Brewer pulled in a paltry 28 percent.

Yet Brewer ran ahead of both McCain and Bush overall. The key is that her policies played well with white voters. In particular, McCain captured 60 percent of whites without college degrees and 58 percent of whites with college degrees.

Brewer actually ran somewhat behind McCain among whites with college degrees, capturing 55 percent of their vote. But among whites without college degrees, Brewer won 66 percent of the vote. This is where her increased victory margin came from.

This is important, because Obama has ongoing weaknesses with working-class white voters. So weak, in fact, that they threatened his presidential bid during the Democratic perfect storm of 2008.

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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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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