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How the Immigration Debate Changed the Course of the 2012 Election

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The Wall Street Journal‘s front-page headline on November 1st read “Election May Hinge on Latino Turnout.” If true, Mitt Romney should start working on his concession speech.

With respect to Latino voters, the two key factors to consider are margin and mobilization. Regarding margin, the most recent impreMedia/Latino Decisions tracking poll shows that Obama is crushing Romney by 73 percent to 21 percent. Romney’s stated campaign goal was to win 38 percent — up from McCain’s 31 percent and down from Bush’s 40 percent. Not gonna happen.

But what about mobilization? Many have predicted low Latino turnout. They argue that Latino voters are so disappointed with the sluggish economy and the failure of President Obama to keep his promise to make immigration reform a first-term priority many will simply stay home.

Not so fast. The latest poll shows that Latinos are more enthusiastic and more likely to vote than ever: 87 percent of Latino voters say they are almost certain they will vote on November 6th (according to Census statistics, 84 percent of Latino registered voters cast a ballot in 2008); 45 percent of Latino voters say they are more enthusiastic about voting in 2012 compared to 2008 — up from 37 percent ten weeks ago in theinitial tracking poll. And add this fact into the mix: NALEO, the nation’s foremost authority on the Hispanic vote, predicts that 12.2 million Latinos will cast ballots in 2012 — an increase of 26 percent from 2008.

If these predictions come true, then Latinos will vote in record numbers and by an unprecedented 3-1 margin for Obama. This dynamic has already turned New Mexico solid blue and could be huge in Nevada, Colorado, Florida and even Virginia. Here’s my prediction: the day after the election, many a pundit will be chewing on the fact that Latinos played a decisive role in the outcome of the Presidential race.

The biggest single factor in driving such margins and mobilization? The dueling immigration stances of the two candidates. After a disappointing first term, in June of this year the President took bold executive action on behalf of young DREAMers, reigniting Latino voter support in the process. Meanwhile, the video clips of Romney pledging to veto the DREAM Act and promoting “self-deportation” should be permanent display at the Museum of Campaign Infamy (next to the clip of Gerry Ford claiming Eastern Europe was not subject to Soviet domination, the photograph of Mike Dukakis in the tank and the shot of George H.W. Bush checking his watch during a debate).

What’s truly remarkable is that none of this was predictable last year.

In 2011, Obama was in serious trouble with Hispanic voters. Instead of making immigration reform a priority as promised, his Administration was deporting record numbers of immigrants — including many of the same people the President had promised to put on a path to legal status. As a result, the President was facing fierce criticism from Spanish language media and from immigrant advocates. In June 2011, at the annual NCLR conference, President Obama made a speech in which he said he could not, without Congressional approval, change immigration policy unilaterally. In response, the crowd erupted in a chant of “Yes, you can! Yes, you can!” A few days later, Rep. Luis Gutierrez and other community leaders staged a sit-down strike and were arrested in front of White House. They sat in front of a banner that read: “One Million Deported Under President Obama.”

The growing tide of anger and disappointment was reflected in the polls. On September 7, 2011, Gallup reported that Obama’s monthly approval rating had sunk to a “new low” — 48 percent — with Hispanics, down from 60 percent just nine months earlier, and way down from the 67 percent who had voted for him in 2008.

Meanwhile, in Boston, Romney campaign strategists were evaluating their 2008 defeat and plotting for 2012. They decided to go softer on immigration and to de-emphasize other culturally-charged issues. Their hard line on immigration in 2008, designed to get to McCain’s right, failed miserably. And this time around, his team feared such a stance would distract from the campaign’s drive to position Romney as a non-ideological businessman who could fix the economy.

Evidently, Romney himself didn’t get the memo. Spooked by Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, he started talking like a Minuteman. In short order, he vowed to veto the DREAM Act, he bear-hugged the author of Arizona’s “show me your papers” law, Kris Kobach and he endorsed “self-deportation,” the radical strategy of the hard-right anti-immigrant movement which aims to purge Latino immigrants from the country by making their lives so miserable they’re compelled to leave America. And to add insult to injury, he kept referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegals” -= which to Latino voters is a dehumanizing term akin to the word “colored.”

Still, could Romney have won the GOP nomination if he hadn’t become a born-again nativist? Most likely. Immigration was not a top tier issue for Republicans primary voters, with only 3 percent of Iowa GOP caucus-goers or Florida GOP primary voters listing “illegal immigration” as their top voting issue. And despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, Republican primary voters are more pragmatic than hard line on immigration, as these polls of Iowa Republican caucus-goers’ views demonstrate (many more supported Gingrich’s more moderate views than Romney’s hawkish stances).

Looking back on the campaign recently, the National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein, an expert on both immigration policy and ethnic voters, called Romney’s lurch to the right on immigration his “original sin”:

Of all Romney’s primary-season decisions, the most damaging was his choice to repel the challenges from Perry and Gingrich by attacking them from the right — and using immigration as his cudgel. That process led Romney to embrace a succession of edgy, conservative positions anathema to many Hispanics…

Even so, once he had the nomination sewed up, Romney had a last chance to “Etch-a-Sketch” his way to the middle and regain his competitiveness with Latino voters. Florida Senator Marco Rubio began making loud noises — and garnering fawning press coverage — about introducing a “Republican version” of the DREAM Act. The plan reportedly would have offered permanent status but not a certain path to citizenship to young immigrants. Democrats were terrified that Rubio would ride in on his white horse from stage right, fill the vacuum created by Obama’s mishandling of the immigration issue and throw Romney a much-needed lifeline. Rubio set things up brilliantly and the Obama camp was sweating bullets. But an overly cautious Romney said, in effect, thanks but no thanks.

While Romney took a pass, Obama took a chance. On June 15, 2012 the President granted deferred action — relief from deportation and work permits — to 1.4 million DREAMers — young undocumented immigrants who are American in all but paperwork. It seems advocates were right all along — the President did have the authority to change immigration policy unilaterally.

The announcement changed the game. Not only was it the right thing to do, it was politically brilliant. It turned things around with Latino voters. By chance, Latino Decisions was in the middle of conducting a poll of Latino voters in key battleground states when the President made his announcement. The before and after results showed a huge spike in enthusiasm.

So, Romney missed the moment and Obama seized it. Since then, Obama has leaned into the issue with pride. A DREAMer spoke at the Democratic convention, he is running ads in Spanish touting his decision to protect them and he and his surrogates bring it up every chance they get. Meanwhile, Romney has thrown a few centrist head fakes and made noises about an unspecified “permanent solution” on immigration. But he has never disavowed or distanced himself his far right primary positions, and that is how he remains branded.

How much will it matter?

In August, as DREAMers lined up to apply for deferred action, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post wrote something that caught our attention:

Not too long ago, I sat down with a senior member of President Obama’s political team. Talk turned, as it often does, to the election, and the official said something that surprised me: If the President wins, this official thought that we would look back after the election and pinpoint the day the administration announced their new policy on deportations as the day the election was won….I didn’t think much of the Obama official’s comment at the time. But reading over some of the coverage of this policy change in local press, and looking at photos like this one, I’m starting to take it more seriously. Changing people’s lives is always more effective than another campaign ad. And this policy is looking like it’s going to change a lot of lives.

At a critical moment, and in contrast to Romney, the President showed courage. As Ezra Klein notes, it’s going to change a lot of lives. It’s also going to help President Obama win re-election on Tuesday.

Cross-posted at Huffington Post and Daily Kos.