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Latino Influence & the Politics of Immigration in the 2014 U.S. Senate Elections

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Cross-posted from Latino Decisions:

To date, much of the evidence suggestive of Latino electoral influence has focused on statewide races, particularly presidential elections in swing states such as Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. However, with no presidential election on the ballot in 2014, the ability of Latino voters, and by extension the politics of immigration, to affect statewide federal races was limited to congressional elections. In this post I explore the dynamics of Latino influence in U.S. Senate elections. In subsequent posts I consider House elections.

In 2014, 36 Senate seats were up for election (Democratic held = 21; Republican held = 15). Just ten races were competitive though. As the table below details, some of these states have rapidly growing Latino voting populations, but other than Colorado, none have Latino voting age populations (VAP) exceeding 10%.[1]

Competitive Senate 2014

Consequently, the geography of the 2014 U.S. Senate elections provided few contexts where Latino voters and immigration were featured. Indeed, just three of these contests (Alaska, Colorado, and North Carolina), all won by Republicans, occurred in states where the “Latino VAP” and “Latino Registration Share” exceeded the eventual margins of victory.

As part of the The Latino Decisions 2014 Election Poll, we sampled Latino voters nationally (national margin of error = +/- 1.9) and in six states with Senate elections, including four states with competitive races (state margin of error = +/- 4.9). Voter preferences in the state and national samples are illustrated below. Clearly, Democratic Senate candidates (and the Kansas independent candidate) enjoyed strong Latino support, albeit at slightly lower levels relative to2012.

LEE Senate 2014

However, as I wrote in a prior post, polling conducted by Latino Decisions found that the failure of the Obama administration to take executive action to relieve deportations prior to the election would dampen Latino electoral enthusiasm. Under pressure from vulnerable Democrats, the president did in fact delay acting until after the election. To assess the impact of that decision on Latino turnout, we sampled 200 registered Latinos who did not vote in 2014. Among these potential voters, 60% reported that the delay made them less enthusiastic about the president and the Democratic Party suggesting that inaction on immigration may have resulted in some Latino voters staying home on Election Day.

The hesitancy of Democrats to embrace immigration also extended to the campaign dialogue. The race in Colorado between Democratic incumbent Mark Udall and Republican Representative Cory Gardner nicely illustrates this point. Engagement and mobilization of Latino voters was key to top of the ticket Democratic victories in the state during the 2008, 2010, and 2012 cycles and many expected this trend to carry Udall to victory in 2014.

The candidates had very different records on immigration (Udall voted for S.744, the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate in June of 2013, while Gardner received a zero on the National Immigration Score Card), but there was little knowledge of this among Latino voters. Specifically, the figure below summarizes the results of a question measuring voters’ awareness of the candidates’ immigration records. Just 38% knew of Gardner’s opposition, while 41% were unaware. For Udall, the numbers are similar: 46% knew his position, while 48% did not.

CO Sen 2014

Although Udall did well with Latino voters – running four points better than Democrats nationally – the difference between the Latino voting age population and the share of Colorado Latinos who are registered was nearly twice as large as the eventual margin. Not only did the Udall campaign fail to draw a sharp contrast on the immigration issue in the minds of many Latino voters, thousands of potential Latino votes were left on the table given the under-representation of Latino voters in the Colorado electorate.

The U.S. Senate race in North Carolina offers another notable instance of Democratic timidity on immigration. Here, Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan openly urged President Obama to delay executive action on immigration and joined other vulnerable Democratic incumbents in supporting Republican efforts to legislatively block the president from taking action. In response,Presente Action ran Spanish-language radio ads attacking Hagan for helping to obstruct relief from deportation for unauthorized immigrants. Tellingly, Hagan received the lowest level of Latino support among all Democratic U.S. Senate candidates.

In sum, while every electoral context presents different opportunities and challenges, in 2014 when the Democrats were fighting to maintain control of the Senate, the party’s handling of immigration was ultimately self-defeating. All of the Democratic incumbent senators who opposed executive action lost. In the state with the largest share of Latino voters, the Democratic candidate failed to distinguish himself on the animating issue for most Latino voters; he too lost.

Despite this reticence, one of the key takeaways from the Latino Election Eve Poll is this: how parties address immigration affects not only how Latinos vote, but also whether they vote at all. Understanding this point is particularly critical for Democrats given that the party’s electoral successes are increasingly dependent upon outsized support among minority voters. As we saw in 2014, when some of these voters are dispirited and choose to stay at home, the party’s candidates struggle in contexts that just two years prior appeared to be tilting Democratic.

[1] Data for the “Latino VAP” and the Registration Increase Since 2000” come from the U.S. Census. The “Latino Registration Share” column uses data from L2 Votermapping capturing the Latino share of registered voters in each state. The “RCP Margin” column reports the Real Clear Politics October 26, 2014 polling average, while the “2014 Margin” column uses data reported by the Associated Press.

David Damore is a Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions. He is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a Senior Nonresident Fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program.