Shortly after the 2014 midterm election, where Latinos comprised just eight percent of the national electorate according to exit polls, President Obama announced executive action that would defer deportations and provide temporary legal status to about four million undocumented immigrants – mostly parents of American citizens. The announcement was well received within the Latino community according to a poll fielded by Latino Decisions, which found that 9 in 10 Latinos supported the policy.
During last week’s Republican presidential debate, Florida Senator Marco Rubio insisted he would end DACA on his first day in office. Similar to GOP front runner Donald Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz has also made it clear that rescinding DACA continues to be among his top priorities. In 2014 Cruz introduced a bill to repeal the 2012 executive action.
Why would Obama make such an announcement knowing that Republicans were sure to oppose him? Obama — and Democrats more generally — are attempting to capitalize on GOP intransigence over immigration as both parties look toward the 2016 presidential election. Immigration may well be the determining factor of the 2016 election because no other issue resonates quite so deeply and personally with Latino families. While other issues are absolutely important to Latinos, extensive and exhaustive research suggests the immigration issue carries the most potential to mobilize the vote.
New research published in the political science journal Electoral Studies evaluates Obama’s 2012 mobilization of the Latino vote, arguing that the DACA announcement fundamentally changed the outcome of the election by boosting enthusiasm for his candidacy. In the face of a wobbly economy, declining support among young voters, and polling that suggested Obama would not win all the states he won in 2008, his strategists were forced to push hard on immigration as the growing Latino vote became a more critical element to victory compared to his first election.
Based on documented media accounts on campaign strategy, I argue that Obama’s campaign team effectively mobilized the Latino vote by closely watching strategies employed by Senators Harry Reid (Nevada) and Michael Bennet (Colorado) in their 2010 campaigns. These two Senators pushed hard on the Dream Act despite the risk of alienating moderate white swing voters. Conventional wisdom suggested these strategies were potentially risky but on Election Day 2010 both candidates pulled out unexpected victories. In narrow 2012 contests Obama was in a similar position where he needed to win swing states like Nevada and Colorado. His team effectively employed group-based appeals by leaning heavily on the immigration issue to help boost enthusiasm among the Latino voting bloc. Specifically, Obama’s June, 2012 DACA announcement was a game changer, as Latino support for Obama increased significantly after the announcement.
Using a large national dataset of Latinos in 2012, the study uses logistic regression models to predict vote for Obama. After controlling for almost every variable that might influence vote choice, I find that Obama’s positioning on DACA was the single most important factor in predicting Latino vote in favor of Obama more so than views on the economy, party identification, generation, or country of origin. In fact, no other variable even comes close to challenging the substantive impact of Obama immigration outreach.
In sum, Obama increased his support among Latinos to a point that the key variable he mobilized on (immigration) was even more powerful than party identification or evaluations of the economy.
The importance of DACA held up across many different regression models that have been vetted and published in political science journals. It was the most important factor whether controlling for candidate position on economy, health care or education. An analytical test comparing the Latino vote for Obama in 2008 compared to 2012 showed that immigration went from the fifth most important factor in 2008 to the number one most important factor in 2012. Furthermore, our estimates show it produced +17 boost in voter turnout when measuring validated voter turnout among Latinos in 2012. In the face of a slowly recovering economy, and overall declining support among the mass public these results show the overwhelming power that the immigration issue can play in presidential politics.
These findings also beg the question: was 2012 an anomaly? Part of the reason Obama did so well among Latinos is due to Mitt Romney’s especially poor performance with this electorate. On immigration, Romney’s policy more or less boiled down to self-deportation. Certainly, this did not win him many friends among Latinos. Moreover, Romney also said he would undo DACA and ran advertisements in Spanish criticizing Obamacare when the vast majority of Latinos supported the policy. What we never would have believed in 2013, after the GOP came out calling on their candidates to embrace immigration reform and be welcoming to Latinos, was that the 2016 leading GOP contenders would be more hostile and further to the right on immigration politics. With Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both leaning in on immigration politics and Republicans leaning in on mass-deportation, the immigration issue is shaping up to be an even more potent mobilizing issue in 2016 than in 2012.
Loren Collingwood is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside and author of the academic article, “Group-based appeals and the Latino vote in 2012: How immigration became a mobilizing issue.”