While perhaps not the defining issue this primary season, the often acrimonious immigration debate could lead to higher than average Hispanic voter turnout. This was the case in the 2006 midterm elections, when an additional 800,000 (Hispanic News) voted compared with 2004, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. February 5 may provide a clearer sense of immigration’s role as a swing issue when more than twenty states—including border states with large Hispanic populations like California, Arizona, and New Mexico—hold nominating elections. An early test case may be the January 29 Florida primary where Hispanics constitute 20 percent of the population (BBC).
Analysts will try to gauge the strength (Sun-Sentinel) of Hispanic voters in Florida, 56 percent of whom went for President Bush in the 2004 election, as compared to 40 percent of Hispanics nationwide. Courting the Cuban vote in the state, GOP candidates have all said they support the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba (WashPost). But Cubans are no longer the dominant Hispanic vote in the state, says one Democratic strategist in the Sun-Sentinel. And experts say the changing demographic makes it harder to estimate which way voters will lean.
Even so, the debate over immigration has been a sore point for Hispanics, and even among some Florida Cubans. A report from the Pew Hispanic Center says for the country as a whole, Hispanics—who represent about 15 percent of the population—may be a swing vote for 2008 (PDF). Nearly 80 percent of registered Hispanic voters nationwide said the immigration issue was very important to them in this presidential race. Republicans seem more vulnerable than Democrats in the debate, the Pew survey said, with 41 percent of Hispanic voters favoring Democrats’ handling of illegal immigration versus 14 percent for Republicans.
Republican Mitt Romney, who favors a get-tough policy that includes increased deportation of illegal immigrants, won the GOP Nevada caucus by a wide margin and won convincingly in economically strapped Michigan. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who backs a path-to-citizenship approach combined with tougher border surveillance, finished third in Nevada behind Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), another illegal immigration hard-liner. Hispanic voters comprised 8 percent of Republican voters in Nevada compared to 15 percent of Democratic voters (CNN), many of whom went for Nevada caucus winner Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY). Hispanic voters—considered a “mainstay of Clinton’s base” (LAT)—could give Clinton a boost over chief rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), but it is unclear how the GOP races will play out. Like McCain, both leading Democratic candidates voted for a recent immigration reform bill that would have included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Conservative voices, including CFR’s Michael Gerson and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, are concerned that Republicans are hurting their party by alienating Hispanics. Another recent Pew report shows Hispanics largely oppose (PDF) some of the proposed enforcement measures including workplace raids and citizenship requirements for driver’s licenses. Among the 1.2 million green card holders (WSJ) that applied for U.S. citizenship last year, the vast majority are Hispanic. The huge jump in citizen applications is in part attributed to high interest in participating in the 2008 election.
Democrats are eyeing gains from Hispanic voters, but the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson warns that Democratic candidates who don’t address the issue adequately could alienate other voters (RealClearPolitics). In an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle, Roberto Lovato of New America Media argues that McCain’s more moderate stance on immigration “could erect a Latino barrier to the Democrats’ wave of inevitability” in a general election.