As the House of Representatives moves towards its August recess having made little to no progress on immigration reform, the House Republican Conference is equipping its members with a document outlining how House Republicans should navigate the recess. Notably absent from the “Planning Kit” is any discussion of immigration reform beyond a suggested messaging theme of “Reforming Immigration and Border Security.” In light of recent analyses conducted by Latinos Decisions for Americas Voice, it might have been prudent for the Republican House leadership to reconsider not just its “messaging themes,” but the party’s handling of immigration policy more generally
Specifically, in a prior post (“How Latino Voters May Decide Control of the U.S. House of Representatives”), we took on the conventional wisdom suggesting that the GOP House caucus has little incentive to pass comprehensive immigration reform containing a pathway to citizenship akin to Senate Bill 744 because most Republican House members represent districts that are overwhelmingly white by identifying 24 marginal Republican held districts (as well as 28 similarly situated Democratic districts) where Latino voters could decide outcomes in 2014 and beyond. As we note, depending upon how the immigration debate unfolds, “Latino voters can tilt the outcome in 2014 in a manner that determines which party controls the House of Representatives in 2015.”
To keep the spotlight on these 24 tier one and tier two Republican held districts, yesterday, we released the results of the America’s Voice/Latino Decisions Midterm Battleground Districts Survey. The survey, which sampled 400 registered Latino voters who voted in the 2010 midterm election (a sub-group that we label Midterm Voters and who tend to be better informed and more conservative than the broader Latino electorate) and another 400 registered Latino voters who did not vote in the 2010 midterm, but did vote in the 2012 presidential election (e.g., Presidential Surge Voters), offers important insight into the preferences of these potential outcome deciding voters.
In general, the survey indicates that both the policies and processes being pursued by House Republicans have little or no resonance among Latino voters who are positioned to determine winners and losers in districts held by vulnerable Republican House members. In terms of policy, 60% of Midterm Voters and 57% of Presidential Surge Voters view immigration as the most important issue that the President and Congress should address. These voters are also paying attention to the immigration debate as 86% of the Midterm Voter sample and 75% of the Presidential Surge sample indicated that they had either heard or read news about the immigration reforms Congress in considering.
The data in Figure 1 makes clear these voters strongly support immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship. Not surprisingly, failure by the House Republicans to pass immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship results in decreased approval of House Republicans (see Figure 2). Even if House Republicans were to pass the KIDS Act, which would provide a path to citizenship only for DREAMers, just 28% of Midterm Voters and 26% of Presidential Surge Voters indicated that they would either be much more likely or somewhat more likely to support Republicans. In contrast, 65% of Midterm Voters and 68% of Presidential Surge Votes residing in GOP held battleground districts responded that such an outcome would make them either somewhat or much less likely to support Republicans. In short, the half a loaf approach being floated by some House Republicans does little to improve the party’s standing with Latino voters living in marginal Republican districts.
These votes also have little appetite for how House Republicans are addressing immigration reform. Most notably, nearly twice as many Midterm (60% to 32%) and Presidential Surge Voters (59% to 31%) think that House Speaker John Boehner should let members of Congress vote on comprehensive immigration legislation instead of putting the vote on hold until a majority of House Republican agree to support the bill. Not surprisingly, if Speaker Boehner does not allow immigration legislation to move forward, the vast majority of Latino voters residing in tier one and tier two GOP held House districts are likely to view Republicans in Congress either somewhat or much less favorably (72% for Midterm Voters and 79% for Presidential Surge Voters). These voters also see Republican efforts to make border security a pre-requisite before a pathway to citizenship can be put in place as a means to block immigration reform (64% for Midterm Voters and 85% for Presidential Surge Voters) instead of as a legitimate concern (29%/25%). Lastly, if House Republicans kill immigration reform and President Obama takes executive action to provide legal status for undocumented immigrants, then as Figure 3 makes clear, the beneficiary of this outcome would be the President and the Democrats.
To be sure, as the data presented here indicate, the present trajectory of immigration reform in the House of Representatives does not bode well for the 24 Republicans representing marginal districts where Latinos can determine outcomes in the 2014 midterm election. Indeed, as the situation presently stands, Democrats in Congress and President Obama enjoy a better than two to one favorability to unfavorability rating among both Midterm and Presidential Surge Voters, while Republicans in Congress have a net unfavorability of 35 and 37 points respectively among Midterm Voters and Presidential Surge Voters. As a consequence, 58% of Midterm Voters and 64% of Presidential Surge Voters indicated that they will either vote for the Democratic House candidate or are likely to do so as compared to only 19% of Midterm Voters and 18% of Presidential Surge Voters who indicated that they will vote for or are likely to vote for the Republican House candidate.
Yet, consistent with prior surveys, the results of the America’s Voice/Latino Decisions Midterm Battleground Districts Survey suggest an opening for Republicans. In particular, 39% of Midterm Voters and 36% of Presidential Surge Voters suggested that they would be more likely to support the Republican House candidate in their district if the GOP takes a leadership role in passing comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship. Thus, while support for a pathway to citizenship that is part of a broader immigration reform package may not result in a ground swell of support for the GOP among Latino voters, it may allow Republicans to cut into the Democrats’ outsized support among these voters in what are likely to be some of the most hotly contested races in 2014. This, in turn, may prove to be the margin of difference in the seats that by extension preserves Republican control of the House of Representative in 2015.
 The margins of error for the Midterm Voter and Presidential Surge Voter sub-samples are +/-4.9% and +/- 3.5% for the entire sample.
David F. Damore is a Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His also a Nonresident Fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, and a key vote advisor to Project Vote Smart.