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The Electoral Politics Of Obama’s Immigration Speech In Nevada

On Thursday evening, President Obama announced a series of executive actions giving work permits to several million undocumented immigrants. On Friday, he’s expected to rally support for the policy in Las Vegas. That’s no coincidence. Nevada is a red state when Latino voters stay home and a blue state when they turn out.

According to the Current Population Survey, Latinos made up 15 percent of Nevada voters in 2012. That was up from just 7 percent in 2000. Exit polls also show that more Latinos are voting Democratic. In 2000, Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore won Latinos in Nevada 64 percent to 33 percent. In 2012, Obama won Latinos 71 percent to 24 percent.

The last two midterm elections show the difference the Latino vote can make. In 2010, Democratic Sen. Harry Reid shocked the political world by defeating Republican Sharron Angle after most of the polling had shown Reid losing. Latino Decisions’ Matt Barreto and my colleague Nate Silver proposed one reason for the polling error: Polls underestimated how many Latinos would vote and how heavily they would favor Reid.

But the early data suggests Hispanic voters were disengaged this year, and Nevada slid back toward the GOP. Preliminary statistics indicate overall turnout was down 9.5 percentage points from 2010. The Democratic percentage of the electorate in early voting (through early Election Day) was down 6 percentage points compared to the early voting period in 2010; the Republican percentage was up 4 percentage points. We don’t know yet exactly how responsible Hispanics were for this drop in Democratic turnout, but we do know there are a lot more Hispanic Democrats than Hispanic Republicans.

Republicans swept all the major statewide offices in Nevada this year, and, more impressively, Republican Cresent Hardy defeated Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford by 3 percentage points in Nevada’s 4th congressional district. This is a seat Democrats shouldn’t lose — the district voted for Obama by 11 percentage points in 2012; it’s 3 percentage points more Latino and more Democratic than the state as a whole.

Of course, Nevada is also emblematic of the Southwest and Mountain West more generally. Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico all voted for President Bush in 2004 and all voted for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. Much of that shift was because of stronger Democratic support from Latinos.

In terms of competitiveness, Nevada sits between Colorado and New Mexico. Colorado went for Obama by about 5 percentage points in 2012. New Mexico went for him by about 10 percentage points. Obama carried the Silver State by 7 points. In other words, Colorado is still very much a swing state, New Mexico probably isn’t, and Nevada is right on the edge.

Given the Republican landslide in Nevada in 2014, Democrats may be worried the state is leaning more Colorado than New Mexico right now. Reid will probably face a tough re-election campaign in 2016. Pushing Nevada from battleground to blue will depend on the state’s Latino electorate.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.