Skip to main content
ABC News
What Obama’s Immigration Decision Might Mean for 2012

Even in an era where partisanship is on the rise, demographic changes exert a gravitational pull on policy and politics and are occasionally enough to overcome political divisions. What is more remarkable than President Obama’s decision on Friday to suspend deportations of some illegal immigrants is Republicans’ relatively passive reaction to it.

Although some Republicans, like Rick Santorum and Alberto Gonzales, have denounced Mr. Obama’s decision, others have had a more equivocal response — unusually so in an election year in which both parties have responded to the smallest gaffe or the slightest opening with jaded and hyperbolic critiques.

A few influential Republicans, like William Kristol, have praised Mr. Obama’s decision outright. Others like Marco Rubio have pushed back on the circumstances of the decision, but less so its substance.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has so far taken an ambiguous stand on Mr. Obama’s decision, largely avoiding questions about it. This is despite Mr. Romney having run to the right of his Republican adversaries on immigration during the primaries, often having used the issue to assert his conservative credentials.

If Mr. Romney eventually comes closer to a lukewarm acquiescence of Mr. Obama’s decision, he may be accused of flip-flopping. But candidates sometimes flip-flop when they conclude that the alternative might be more costly.

In the years leading up to the 2008 presidential election and the months immediately following it, a number of mostly liberal-leaning scholars proposed a theory called the “emerging Democratic majority,” which pointed out that some groups that were more favorably inclined toward Democrats were becoming more plentiful as a share of the American population.

The theory relies heavily on Hispanic voters, who represented about 9 percent of voters in the 2008 election, according to exit polls. Hispanics represented just 2 percent of the turnout in the 1992 presidential election, but the percentage has risen slowly but steadily since then.

A critique of the theory, and one which I mostly find persuasive, is proposed in various forms by analysts like Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics and Jamelle Bouie of The American Prospect.

Mr. Trende and Mr. Bouie make a number of arguments, but a simple one is that “permanent” majorities are usually an illusion. Instead, demographic and cultural changes produce shifts in public opinion, and the parties respond to them by changing their positions accordingly, in such a way that they gravitate toward splitting the electorate about 50-50.

This may be an example of exactly the sort of adaptation that Mr. Trende and Mr. Bouie describe. Republicans, like any political party, are often guilty of prioritizing short-term tactical goals over long-term strategic ones. But many of them seem to see the writing on the wall on the immigration issue. The Republican nominees in 2000, 2004 and 2008, George W. Bush and John McCain, took relatively moderate stances on immigration, and it would not be surprising if Mr. Romney softened his position as well.

From 2009 to 2011, about 2 million people became naturalized citizens of the United States. Few of these new citizens (about 13 percent) represented demographic groups like Europeans or Canadians that would traditionally be considered white. Instead, about 40 percent came from Asia, and 35 percent came from Latin America.

It would be a mistake to conclude that Hispanic and Asian-American voters care solely about immigration, as news media accounts sometimes suggest. Instead, a survey in December by the Pew Hispanic Center found that only about one-third of Hispanic registered voters listed immigration as an extremely important issue, whereas close to 50 percent said the same of jobs, education and health care.

Still, most Latinos in the Pew survey had disapproved of Mr. Obama’s handling of deportation policy, and most were aware that deportations had increased during Mr. Obama’s time in office.

In the Pew survey and in others, Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have not always been outstanding among Hispanic voters. But relatively few have said that they plan to vote for Mr. Romney.

The danger for Democrats was that these voters, unenthusiastic about both choices, might not have turned out to vote at all. Historically, Hispanics have not been as likely to register to vote as other groups, in part a reflection of the fact that a fair number of them are not United States citizens. However, voting participation has been relatively low, even among those Hispanics who were registered to vote.

Mr. Obama’s decision could motivate some additional turnout among these voters. If, for instance, Hispanic turnout increases by 5 percent, and 5 percent of Hispanics who might otherwise have voted for Mr. Romney now vote for Mr. Obama instead, it would swing a net of about 1 percentage point in support to Mr. Obama. That is hardly a game-changer, but it could matter in an election that could be very close.

If Mr. Romney treads softly on the issue, it may be to return the focus more to the economy. Many Hispanics were hit hard by the recession, and they are more of a swing vote than they are given credit for. The percentage of Hispanics voting for Democrats has varied in recent elections, from as low as 53 percent in 2004 to as high as 73 percent in 1996. A charge of flip-flopping on immigration policy might be the lesser of evils for Mr. Romney if he wants to maximize his competitiveness among these voters.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.