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5 Reasons Why Hillary Clinton’s Immigration Remarks Were Politically Smart

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Hillary Clinton’s immigration remarks yesterday embraced a far-reaching, pro-immigrant policy vision.  The remarks, and their significance in the 2016 campaign context, also represent a bold political move that may prove to be historic.  It is hard to downplay the significance of her remarks – no major presidential candidate has ever so forcefully championed immigrants as an essential pillar of his or her campaign before.  Here’s five reasons why we view Hillary Clinton’s decision to “lean in” on immigration as a hugely positive political move for her candidacy:

  • Energizing the Latino electorate for 2016:The growing Latino electorate consistently breaks down as approximately 50% Democratic and 20% Republican, with the remaining 30% up for grabs.  For example, in 2014 Election Eve polling from Latino Decisions, 20% of Latino voters said they planned to vote Republican in the 2016 presidential election, while 52% were committed to the Democrats, leaving 28% undecided or nominally up for grabs.  In likely 2016 battleground states, Latino voters’ share of the electorate is growing larger by the day – for example, in Colorado, Latino voters will comprise 16% of the eligible 2016 electorate; in Florida, 20%; and in Nevada, 19%.  Winning a majority of Latino voters is not enough for Hillary Clinton and Democrats.  They have to win the largest share possible—and turn out the largest number of Latino voters available.  And one of the best ways they do so is by leaning in — aggressively — on immigration.  As Latino Decisions has consistently noted, immigration is a “gateway” issue for Latino voters.  When 58% of Latino voters know someone who is undocumented, and another 85% of undocumented immigrants report having a U.S. citizen relative, immigration isn’t an abstract policy debate, it’s about families.  It’s personal.  The way Hillary Clinton discussed immigration yesterday seemed to acknowledge this fact – and will likely energize Latino voters in the process.
  • Drawing stark distinctions between her immigration views and the GOP field –and placing candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio on defense. Despite their acute political need to make inroads with Latino voters, the entire Republican presidential field is tacking to the right on immigration – either rhetorically, substantively or both – while Republicans in Congress are doing their best to ensure that the GOP’s brand image remains tarnished with Latinos and other fast growing groups of voters who care about immigration issues.  By laying out an unequivocally assertive set of pro-reform policies yesterday, Clinton drew an even sharper contrast with the Republican contenders.  Every single Republican contender, for example, is opposed to immigration executive action (last week, Ted Cruz said he would do away with DACA and DAPA on “Day One” of a potential Cruz presidency). On a pathway to citizenship, the GOP field is being purposefully vague on essential details – their “secure the border first” talking point, for example, could mean continually moving the security metrics such that it means “immigration reform never.” The divide between the parties, and their candidates, on immigration became a gulf yesterday.  And while Clinton can continue to speak unequivocally about her pro-reform policies, even Republican contenders who hope to make inroads with Latinos are opposed to executive action and must rely on vague talking points in their need to appeal to enough hardline primary voters to capture the nomination.
  • Outlining immigration positions backed by the American public and overwhelmingly favored by Latino voters. While some are saying that Clinton’s move placesher on the “left” of the debate, it is important to remember that her immigration stances are actually in the mainstream of American public opinion (a fact not lost on the Clinton campaign, which undoubtedly has crunched the numbers about the public opinion implications of yesterday’s pronouncements).  In fact, the public is practical, humane, and committed to modernizing immigration policy and finding an equal role for immigrants in our society.  As a result, Clinton’s views on both a path to citizenship for aspiring Americans and on executive action largely meets where the public – if not the political debate – actually is on immigration. Approximately two-thirds of American voters support immigration reform with a path to citizenship when the policy option is presented as such. And when the public is presented with the specific requirements undocumented immigrants have to satisfy in order to earn citizenship over time (pass background checks, pay taxes, study English), public support climbs even higher.  On immigration executive action, the American public backs President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, while simultaneously opposing Republican attempts to block or overturn the step forward (see here for PRRI, CBS News, NBC News/WSJ, and Washington Post/ABC numbers).  Latino voters overwhelmingly support reform with a pathway to citizenship and immigration executive actions – approximately 75%-90% of Latino respondents support both immigration reform and executive action (depending on question wording – see polls from Latino Decisions and PRRI and Washington Post/ABC News polling for more).  Meanwhile, Republican base voters are outliers from the rest of the American public on immigration issues.  For example, May 2015 polling from New York Times/CBS Newsasked about preferred policies for undocumented immigrants – “allowed to stay in the U.S and eventually apply for citizenship … allowed to stay in the U.S. legally, but not be allowed to apply for citizenship … or … required to leave the U.S.?” Among all respondents, 57% supported citizenship, only 11% supported legalization without citizenship, and 29% supported the “require to leave” option.  Yet among just Republican respondents, the results broke down as follows: 46% supported “required to leave,” 38% supported citizenship, and 12% supported legalization short of citizenship.
  • Learning from recent electoral history about the political benefits of Democrats “leaning in” to immigration: The 20082010, and 2012election cycles provide compelling evidence that leaning into pro-immigrant policies and politics benefits Democrats (click on the year above for detailed post-election analysis). In the 2008 election cycle, Barack Obama won 67%-31% among Latino voters nationwide, in large part because of the tarnished Republican brand image on immigration. In addition, in 20 of 22 of the most competitive races for the House of Representatives, voters elected pro-immigration reform candidates over opponents opposed to it. In 2010, the successful Senate Democratic campaigns of Harry Reid in Nevada and Michael Bennet in Colorado helped save the Senate for Democrats and provided a template for how Democrats could mobilize fast-growing groups of voters by leaning into immigration issues and drawing sharp contrasts with Republican opponents. President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign took this “lean in” model to a new level on the national stage. His June 2012 announcement of the DACA program for Dreamers changed the trajectory of the election. The move ignited Latino voter enthusiasm, thrilled progressives and helped President Obama and down-ballot Democrats run up huge margins among Latino and Asian-American voters.  In 2014, Democrats learned the opposite lesson, the hard way.  They backtracked on immigration, and paid the price. After President Obama promised in June 2014 to take executive action on immigration ahead of the mid-term elections, he came under pressure from swing state Senate Democrats and decided to delay immigration executive action.  Not only did this fail to save any of the Senators in tough swing states, the resulting Latino voter apathy in Colorado helped Republican Cory Gardner beat Democrat Mark Udall in a race that favored Udall. The delay also hurt the Democratic candidate in a range of Houseand gubernatorial contests that could have tilted Democratic with greater Latino turnout. When President Obama finally did announce the long-awaited immigration executive actions, in November 2014, his popularity rebounded among Latino voters but it was too late for candidates in Latino-influenced races.