Will Latinos abandon the Democrats if immigration reform fails?

According to new polling data from Latino Decisions, immigration reform remains a top priority for Latino voters, and failure to pass a bill could hurt Democrats standing with the Latino electorate. In 2008, the Latino vote increased more than any other segment of the population and was a crucial part of Obama’s coalition, especially in Nevada, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, and even Indiana. However if Congress does not act on immigration reform and pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes a pathway to citizenship, many Latino voters may think twice about voting Democrat in 2010 or 2012.  While President Obama enjoyed an 81% approval rating from Latinos after his first 100 days in office, we estimate that only about 65% of Latinos would support Democrat in 2010 if immigration is not passed, and that just 55% would support Obama and the Dems in 2012 if immigration reform has still not passed.  More on these calculations in the paragraphs below.

When asked how important it was for Congress and the President to address immigration reform before 2010, 61% of Latino voters said it was very important and 23% said somewhat important, for a total of 84% stating reform was important, versus just 16% who said not too important.  These numbers are similar to a Latino Decisions post-election survey in November 2008 when 67% of Latinos said immigration reform was very important and 19% said somewhat important, suggesting the staying power of immigration as an issue.

However, in the year since his historic election, President Barack Obama suggested in August that immigration reform may have to wait, as his focus has been on the economy, health care, and Afghanistan — all pressing issues.  We asked Latino voters whether or not a delay in immigration reform past 2010 was understandable, or if that would be considered going back on a campaign promise, and respondents were mixed.  While 40% said it was understandable that other issues have been placed on the agenda, 29% stated that delays in immigration reform would be going back against a campaign promise, and 27% said it was a little of both.  If the Democrats stall on immigration reform, it is not at all clear that Latinos would patiently wait for next time.

How does this translate into votes in 2010 and 2012? As a follow-up, the Latino Decisions survey asked how Latinos would vote in 2010 if an immigration bill is not passed before the midterm election.  We posed a similar scenario about the 2012 election.  Overall, 65% of Latinos said they would most likely vote Democrat in 2010, even if no immigration bill is passed, however 27% said they were unlikely to vote Democratic and 8% would be undecided.  In 2012, another 10% say they would defect from the Democrats if an immigration bill is not passed before the November 2012 presidential election, leaving 55% in favor of the Democrats, 37% unlikely to vote Democrat, and 8% undecided.

Of course, these are estimates looking into the future and things could change, however the data do suggest that immigration reform is a very important issue to Latino voters, and during the 2008 campaign Obama did promise action on immigration reform within his first year, i.e. 2009.   Would failure send Latinos into the waiting arms of Republicans? That is very unlikely, as many Republicans have been associated with efforts to derail immigration reform.  A more likely scenario is that Latinos would be less than enthusiastic about either Democrats or Republicans and may not turnout in large numbers in 2010 or 2012 if Democrats dangle immigration reform before Latinos, and then fail to make good.

— Gary Segura & Matt Barreto, Directors of Research, Latino Decisions

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