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Immigration in the 2014 Elections: Three Takeaways and One Lesson

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November 12, 2014                                                        

2014 was a wave election, but it wasn’t a referendum on immigration. Here are three takeaways and one lesson for both parties to learn as they turn to governing and the 2016 elections.

TAKEAWAY ONE: The Democrats’ gamble to not take action on immigration failed, costing them in voter enthusiasm.

After experiencing the benefits of a “lean-in” immigration strategy in 2010 and 2012, the President and his Party backtracked in the months before the 2014 elections. Senate Democrats privately and publicly urged President Obama to postpone executive action on immigration until after the elections, fearing a voter backlash promised by rightwing media.

But “playing it safe” turned into a lost opportunity to turn on—and turn out—Democratic base voters. Here’s what happened instead:

  • All of the Senate Democrats this strategy was designed to protect went ahead and lost. Meanwhile, Latino voter apathy in Colorado helped Republican Cory Gardner beat Democrat Mark Udall in this closely watched Senate race.
  • Democrats missed a chance to pick up the Florida governorship, and lost big in Colorado’s 6th congressional district (Romanoff v. Coffman), a race that was expected to be much closer. They also failed to protect incumbents in FL-26 (Curbelo v. Garcia), NV-4 (Hardy v. Horsford), and TX-23 (Hurd v. Gallego)—as well as, potentially, AZ-2 (McSally v. Barber). Democrats in these races would have benefited from an energized Latino and progressive voter turnout, if these voters had been energized to turn out.
  • In a Latino Decisions election eve survey of registered Latino voters who decided not to show up at the polls this year, 60% said that the delay in executive action made them less enthusiastic about President Obama and Democrats.

As Dana Milbank put it in “Obama’s Big Immigration Mistake,” President Obama’s “political calculation [on immigration] turned out to be too clever by half, and he would up setting back a worthy cause without helping Democrats at the polls.”

According to Gary Segura, Stanford University professor and co-founder of Latino Decisions:

Democrats are wringing their hands about white voters, but the exit polls suggest Democrats’ share of the white vote was stable – or actually up 1 point – comparing 2010 and 2014. The ‘missing’ Democratic vote was overwhelmingly racial and ethnic minority voters and young people, and it is here where Democratic investment, and willingness to embrace Democratic principles, must grow.

TAKEAWAY TWO: Republicans would be wrong to think they can repeat their 2014 immigration strategy and win in 2016. 

The rightwing echo chamber was in full scream mode pre-election, repeatedly attacking the President and Democrats over immigration and attempting to link concern over ISIS and Ebola to border security. They claimed to speak for the broader public on the immigration issue, despite all evidence to the contrary.

We’ve already pointed out how anemic the anti-immigrant “movement’s” “demonstrations” have been. Their bark remains worse than their bite, but anti-immigrant leaders are now trying to claim that the 2014 elections prove the popularity of anti-immigrant politics. Certainly, many Republicans who engaged in fear mongering on border security won. But given all the issue and dynamics at play, it’s hard to point out any races where being hawkish on immigration proved to be decisive.

In fact, the 2014 wave election was less about issues and more about disapproval of President Obama combined with inherent structural challenges for Democrats. These structural challenges include the electorate’s composition – whiter, older and more conservative – during this historically low-turnout election; the difficult map of 2014 Senate contests; and the “six-year itch” that favors the opposition party of two-term presidents.

Even in a terrible year there was good news for proponents of immigration reform. For example:

  • All Senate Republicans who voted for the immigration bill and faced voters in 2014 were re-elected handily (Alexander, Collins, Graham).
  • Despite extensive fear-mongering and anti-immigrant campaigning, Republican Scott Brown still lost to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in the Senate race in New Hampshire. Anti-immigrant organizations and allies were all-in on the NH Senate race, with Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) callingthe race the “epicenter” of the fight on immigration executive action.  However, Brown went down to defeat and per the network exit polls, NH voters preferred “legal status” over “deportation” of most unauthorized immigrants by a 57%-40% margin.
  • Despite running anti-immigrant ads and winning free publicity from Breitbart, Republican Terri Lynn Land still lost to Democrat Gary Peters in the Senate race in Michigan.
  • Exit polls of 2014 voters nationwide showed that most prefer legal status (57%) over deportation (39%) when asked how to handle undocumented immigrants working in the United States.

Looking ahead to 2016, Republicans should take care to learn the right lessons from the 2014 cycle. Many of the same structural challenges that hindered Democrats this year are likely to come back to bite Republicans in 2016.

With Senate seats in Arizona and Florida as well as the Presidency in play, loud opposition to the President’s upcoming executive action on immigration would hamper their chances of maintaining control of the Senate and re-taking the White House. In the Latino Decisions election eve survey, 61% of Latino voters said they would be less enthusiastic about the Republican Party if it works to block executive action.

Currently, 20% of Latino voters say they plan to vote Republican in the 2016 presidential election, while 52% are committed to the Democrats and 28% are undecided. Given that most observers believe a Republican candidate has to win at least 40% of the Latino vote to have a chance at winning the presidency (the last GOP candidate to do so was George W. Bush), the Republican Party starts in a hole. Digging it deeper would only make their prospects worse.

What will be the GOP response to executive action? Without a doubt, GOP opposition will be near-universal. But will they go for broke? Senator Mitch McConnell recently pledged that the Republicans plan to be a “responsible governing Republican majority” and avoid government shutdowns. Yet the rightwing is already floating impeachment and shutdown possibilities in response to the executive action announcement.

Republicans might want to heed this warning by Fergus Cullen, a former Republican Party chairman of the early presidential primary state of New Hampshire. He told Bloomberg Businessweek about the GOP reaction to executive action: “The right wing will go nuts…Steve King cannot be the face and voice of the Republican Party on immigration issues if the party is going to prosper in national elections.”

TAKEAWAY THREE: When it comes to the media exit polls on Latino and Asian American voters, the only reliable finding is that these polls are unreliable.   

The 2014 national exit polls have Latino voters supporting Democratic House candidates over Republicans 62% to 36%, compared to the 69%/27% split in Latino Decisions’ election eve survey.

The same national exit polls have Asian American voters supporting Democratic House candidates over Republicans 50% to 49%, compared to the 66%/34% split in Asian American Decisions’ election eve survey.

According to Taeku Lee at Asian American Decisions: “Warren Mitofsky, the ‘godfather of exit polls,’ noted that errors in such polls ‘appear mostly among demographic groups that are both relatively small and those that tend to be geographically concentrated’— in other words, groups such as Asian Americans. Indeed, with regard to … Latinos, the exit polls have missed the mark with some regularity. In 2004 and 2010, such polls mischaracterized the Latino vote badly (see here, here and here).”

The discrepancies are even starker at the state level. In 2014, Latino Decisions found that only 30% of Texas Latinos supported Republican Senator John Cornyn, while 32% supported Republican Greg Abbott for governor. The national exit polls showed Cornyn winning the Latino vote with 48%, and Abbott garnering 44%.   Here, Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions explains why this result is mathematically impossible.

Why does it matter? Because politicos, parties, and candidates make decisions about future elections based on these data. Inaccurate understandings about the political preferences of Latino, Asian, and immigrant voters can provide a false sense of confidence, or mask voters’ disillusionment, depending on point of view.

Instead, both parties should spend some time with the results of Latino Decisions’ national and 10-state election eve polls, as well as Asian American Decisions’ national and 3-state election eve surveys. They should look at Latino Decisions’ survey of Latinos who chose not to vote in 2014, too. They’ll find some stark similarities, namely the fact that these voters have personal ties to the immigration debate, care deeply about its resolution, feel taken for granted by both political parties, but when they show up they do so to vote not for parties but for their communities.

THE LESSON: When it comes to immigration, good policy is good politics.

Historically, all voters have favored broad immigration reform with a path to citizenship for aspiring Americans. Reams of polling, as well as the national exit poll results, all make this abundantly clear.

This election, two-thirds of Latino voters nationwide said that immigration reform was either “the most important” issue in their voting decisions (33%) or “one of the important issues” (34%), as did 47% of Asian voters (17% chose “the most important” and 30% said “one of the most important”).  Underscoring the personal relevance of the immigration debate, 58% of Latino voters report knowing an undocumented immigrant.

The lesson for both parties to learn from 2014 is this: when it comes to immigration, good policy is good politics. Talk is cheap, but with action comes reward. That is it.

Republicans may have grown their footprint in 2014, but Latino Decisions polling and analysis makes it clear that the GOP’s anti-immigrant, pro-deportation rhetoric and record will hurt them in 2016.

In 2014, Democrats could have stemmed their losses by staying true to their principles and keeping their promise on immigration. They cannot make this same mistake in the lead-up to 2016.

It seems that only one party is poised to course-correct. The President reaffirmed his intention to take bold executive action on immigration this year. After presiding over a record number of deportations, President Obama has one last chance to make a turnaround on this issue before his legacy is written in ink.

Republicans realize that an Obama action on immigration would hurt them with Latino, Asian, and immigrant voters in 2016, as it unleashes their crazy side and Democrats are poised to absorb the credit of a successful new DACA-like policy. Republicans are already threatening to stall nominations, shut down the government, and even impeach Obama if he goes forward, all in an effort to intimidate him into inaction.

Republicans are also trying to shape the blame game before the ball’s been thrown into play. To quote Greg Sargent, captioning John Boehner’s crocodile tears as he warns the President not to move forward on immigration: “If Obama doesn’t join us in refusing to lift a finger to address our broken immigration system, there is no chance we will ever lift a finger to address our broken immigration system, is that clear?”

What’s clear to us is that Republicans’ best hope on immigration is that the President does not act and does not score a big win on behalf of immigrants and the broader community. Then their 2016 candidates can run on the President’s “broken promise,” rather than their own inconvenient, anti-immigrant record.

It’s also clear to us that the only way this country will see progress on immigration over the next two years is if the President does act, and takes all the steps he can under his existing authority until Congress finally finishes the job.

The New York Times editorial board sent a post-election message to the President that said “Do it. Take Executive Action. Make it big.” La Opinión, the nation’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, agreed: “An executive order will have major political ramifications over the next two years and perhaps even for the 2016 presidential election. However, it is the right thing to do, both for the country’s economy and the millions of families living with the fear of deportation.”

The moral reason to take action on immigration is just as strong as the political imperative. And they both point in the same direction. Obama must act to protect millions from deportation, and Republicans must change their position before it’s too late. Good politics follow good policy; that’s the lesson on immigration.