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Many have been surprised these past few weeks. Not only has immigration dominated the headlines, but President Obama has dominated his opponent Mitt Romney on the issue. Why? Because Obama understands the new politics of immigration, while Romney is stuck in the past.
As America’s Voice has highlighted, the old conventional wisdom on the politics of immigration has been replaced by a new reality. The old political paradigm held that immigration was one of the third rails of American politics for Democrats who needed to win swing voters. Under this view, it was considered a losing move for Democrat to actually lean into the issue and take a progressive stance on immigration. The thinking was that conservatives would mobilize, a majority of swing voters would follow conservatives into opposition, and pro-immigrant voters, especially Latinos, did not care enough or count enough to make up the difference. As for Republicans, the old conventional wisdom is that by playing to the base (with red meat on immigration) you rally cultural conservatives, win over swing voters and divide Democrats.
But the new reality stands this conventional wisdom on its head. As President Obama has demonstrated recently by protecting hundreds of thousands of DREAMers and by suing the state of Arizona for taking federal law into their own hands–leaning into the issue 1) mobilizes Latino and other pro-immigrant voters, 2) attracts swing voters who favor solutions over paralysis and pragmatism over nativism, and 3) isolates and marginalizes the loud but not large anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party. As for Romney, he seemed to believe he could play to the base in the primary and either use that to his advantage in the general election or drop the issue altogether. Now he finds himself sandwiched between a nativist rock and a Latino hard place.
Yes, anti-immigrant hardliners can make a difference in some low-turnout GOP primaries. But Republican voters as a whole are far more realistic on immigration policy than their elected leaders tend to be. For example, strong majorities continue to support comprehensive immigration reform, the DREAM Act, and President Obama’s bold decision to prevent the deportation of young people who go to college or join the military. And in the last three general elections – 2006, 2008, and 2010 – there is mounting evidence for the new reality. In 2006, Republicans tried to save their House majority by running against illegal immigration and lost. In 2008, Obama leaned into the immigration issue and won four Latino-rich states (NV, CO, NM and FL) that Bush had won just four years earlier. And in 2010 Harry Reid, Michael Bennet and Barbara Boxer leaned into the issue in their races, and powered by strong Latino turnout and support, saved the Senate for the Democrats. On the other side, anti-immigrant standard-bearers Tom Tancredo, Sharron Angle, and Russell Pearce all went down to defeat.
President Obama’s recent decision to protect DREAM youth from deportation and his strong statement after the Supreme Court ruled on his Administration’s challenge to Arizona’s SB 1070 shows that he grasps this new reality. He leaned into the issue and took bold action. Mitt Romney’s incomprehensible response to both shows that he still hasn’t gotten the memo. He’s reluctant to take on the nativist wing of the party – the very thing he has to do to increase his share of the Hispanic vote.
As a result, Republicans look ridiculous. Some are in overdrive in their attempts to re-write immigration history. They pretend that President Obama and Democrats didn’t support or pursue immigration reform, without acknowledging 1) Republicans obstructed Obama and Congressional Democrats at every turn when it came to comprehensive immigration reform; and 2) Republicans filibustered and voted against the DREAM Act. Others, such as Tom Tancredo himself, are busy suggesting that as President, Romney would rescind the protection for DREAMers – hardly a smart Latino outreach strategy. Only a brave few are speaking out in hopes that Romney stands up to the hardliners, presents a coherent, comprehensive plan and makes a compelling pitch for Latino support.
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director here at America’s Voice:
Those waiting for Romney to grow a backbone, come forward with specific answers and improve his share of the Hispanic vote shouldn’t hold their breath. Romney doesn’t get the new and true politics of immigration. In the primaries he defined himself as a hard liner. Currently, he remains tethered to the hard right in his party even as he fumbles to find a new tone and some new attack lines. This leaves him and his spokespersons sputtering nonsense and vagaries in response to Obama’s gutsy moves. Sure, the issue will go away for a while but what’s he going to do when immigration comes up in the debates? It’s gotten so bad that his mishandling of immigration and the Latino vote may end up being one of the dominant political storylines come November.