Will Immigration Decision Fuel Latino Turnout?

Experts say both the ruling and recent Obama announcement could energize voters.

Naureen Khan
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Naureen Khan
June 25, 2012, 12:32 p.m.

The Su­preme Court may have giv­en Pres­id­ent Obama a double vic­tory when it handed down its rul­ing re­gard­ing Ari­zona’s con­tro­ver­sial im­mig­ra­tion law.

The Court on Monday not only af­firmed the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s right to set im­mig­ra­tion policy in strik­ing down three of the four pro­vi­sions in SB 1070; in up­hold­ing the most con­tro­ver­sial “show me your pa­pers” com­pon­ent — which re­quires po­lice to check the leg­al status of any­one they stop or ar­rest if they sus­pect they are here il­leg­ally—the high court may also have giv­en a his­tor­ic­ally re­luct­ant His­pan­ic elect­or­ate a real reas­on to turn out for the pres­id­ent.

“This [court rul­ing] is ex­actly what [Lati­nos] have been fear­ful of,” said Gary Se­gura, a polit­ic­al-sci­ence pro­fess­or at Stan­ford Uni­versity and a prin­cip­al at the polling firm Latino De­cisions. “The de­cision is kind of a win for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, but also from the per­spect­ive of Latino voters, this [is­sue] is still a really big deal.”

Even as Demo­crats have had little else to cel­eb­rate in June, the pres­id­ent ap­pears to be on sol­id polit­ic­al foot­ing with re­gards to im­mig­ra­tion.

Ten days ago, to the de­light of Latino act­iv­ists, he an­nounced that his ad­min­is­tra­tion would halt de­port­a­tions and cre­ate a path to leg­al status for some young im­mig­rants who had been brought to the United States il­leg­ally when they were chil­dren.

Now the Obama cam­paign has a power­ful case to make when it paints a pic­ture for Lati­nos about what life un­der a Re­pub­lic­an ad­min­is­tra­tion could look like.

The most re­cent USA Today/Gal­lup poll shows that Obama has already opened up a wide gulf among Latino voters, lead­ing Re­pub­lic­an Mitt Rom­ney by 66 per­cent to 25 per­cent and put­ting Rom­ney in the weak­est po­s­i­tion with Lati­nos since Bob Dole in 1996.

But the great­er con­sequence of the Su­preme Court’s SB 1070 de­cision may be mo­bil­iz­a­tion among the Latino com­munity. As their num­bers have grown, Lati­nos have in­deed wiel­ded more in­flu­ence, usu­ally to the be­ne­fit of Demo­crats.

Even so, their power has been muted by tra­di­tion­ally tep­id par­ti­cip­a­tion com­pared with oth­er groups. About 21 mil­lion Lati­nos will be eli­gible to vote in Novem­ber, but only 10 mil­lion are re­gistered. If past serves as pre­ced­ent, even few­er will vote.

“The big ques­tion is turnout,” said GOP strategist Ana Nav­arro, who ad­vised 2008 Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­eeJohn Mc­Cain on Latino is­sues. “Between [Obama’s] Dream policy an­nounce­ment 10 days ago and this Su­preme Court de­cision, what was a very dis­il­lu­sioned and leth­ar­gic base un­til a couple of weeks ago is now en­er­gized.”

(RE­LATED: Full Battle­grounds 2012 Cov­er­age)

That has the po­ten­tial to make a dif­fer­ence in a num­ber of swing states in the South­w­est — Nevada, Col­or­ado, and New Mex­ico — where the Latino pop­u­la­tion has skyrock­eted over the past dec­ade. Polit­ic­al ana­lysts have also turned their at­ten­tion re­cently to Ari­zona, a tra­di­tion­ally Re­pub­lic­an strong­hold that nev­er­the­less has seen a siz­able in­crease in its Latino pop­u­la­tion and where “show me your pa­pers” ac­tu­ally will be felt. The Obama cam­paign re­cently began an ag­gress­ive re­gis­tra­tion ef­fort there.

“I’ve seen polling in the last few weeks com­ing out of Ari­zona that show it with­in the mar­gin of er­ror, which is shock­ing and would be a real cause of con­cern for Re­pub­lic­ans,” Se­gura said. “If Demo­crats can make Ari­zona com­pet­it­ive, that will be a dir­ect con­sequence of this law.”

Nev­er­the­less, Ari­zona-based polit­ic­al ana­lyst Mike O’Neil points out that the Latino vote has been oft-prom­ised and nev­er de­livered; 2012 would be a first if His­pan­ics do turn out in force.

“When you’ve got your­self or your neigh­bors pulled over on the street to be checked for pa­pers “¦ I think [that] be­comes po­ten­tially the grist for mo­bil­iz­a­tion,” O’Neil said. “Un­der­score is on the word po­ten­tial. They still have to beat the pave­ments and make it hap­pen.”

The Ari­zona de­cision is the second time in two weeks that ques­tions over im­mig­ra­tion policy have put Rom­ney in an awk­ward po­s­i­tion. The former Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor has been boxed in by his party’s po­s­i­tions on the is­sue, even as many in the GOP have em­phas­ized the im­port­ance of mak­ing in­roads with His­pan­ic voters, who are wield­ing more power at the bal­lot box with each passing elec­tion cycle.

In a sidestep that has marked Rom­ney’s deal­ings with the is­sue, he is­sued a brief state­ment as­sail­ing the pres­id­ent on his policies but didn’t of­fer much in the way of his own pro­pos­als.

“Rom­ney has got to say something more defin­it­ive than ‘I’m anti-Obama,’ “ O’Neil said. “Right now, Re­pub­lic­ans are talk­ing about build­ing a moat and put­ting al­ligators in the wa­ter, and Rom­ney’s try­ing to ap­pear not to be totally ter­ri­fy­ing to His­pan­ics. He has a very del­ic­ate dance to pull off with re­spect to that.”

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