Latinos and the Future of American Electoral Politics: Studies Point to Key Role in Future Years

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Photo: LBJ Library)

It is often said that, when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson also signed the South away to the Republican Party for a generation.

Today, LBJ seems vindicated. And another minority that for some is in a struggle similar to the civil rights movement finds itself in a new, powerful role.

The longtime sleeping giant of American politics — Latino voters — has finally awakened with the potential to give the Democrats an electoral majority that could last for a generation. That was the conclusion Hispanic and pro-immigrant advocates drew yesterday at a press conference in Washington D.C.

“My advice to Republicans is to make their peace with the fastest growing portion of the American electorate,” Simon Rosenberg, the president of progressive think tank NDN, said at the America’s Voice event. “The Republican Party is giving away the Southwest and Florida to the Democrats for a generation.”

Hispanic voters were crucial in President-Elect Barack Obama’s victories in coveted Florida and in the key western states of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. Their vote was also important in Virginia and Indiana — and some activists claim they made a sizable contribution in North Carolina, too.

Although immigration was not the main issue for Latinos when deciding their vote, it was closely linked to how they voted in this election, the activists said.

“Pundits don’t understand our community very well (on immigration,)” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza. “It’s become a sort of test, it’s not classified as a priority, but it’s a test through which Latinos gauge how politicians regard our community.

“For us,” Murguia added, “this is a civil rights issue as much as it is a policy issue.”

As soon as both major parties’ primaries were over, immigration practically disappeared from the electoral debate. Both Senator Obama and his rival, Sen. John McCain, avoided the issue in mainstream appearances, and addressed it almost exclusively before immigrant audiences. The conventional wisdom was that any other course of action would have hurt their campaigns, chasing away non-immigrant voters.

“Every part of the conventional wisdom was wrong,” said pollster David Mermin of Lake Research Partners. “A solid majority of voters across the board supported comprehensive immigration reform.” According to a poll of 1,250 voters conducted after the election, most voters want the issue to be addressed during the presidential term starting Jan. 20.

The poll showed there is a broad preference for comprehensive immigration reform over an enforcement-only approach, according to Mermin. And most people, Latino or not, think the best solution is giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

“Two thirds said they should be required to register to become legal,” Mermin said.

America’s Voice sponsored another poll, this one of voters in nine swing districts in Virginia, Arizona, New Mexico, Washington, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Those districts saw highly competitive Congressional races in which the immigration issue played a significant role, explained pollster Pete Brodnitz of Benenson Strategy Group.

In this second poll, Brodnitz said, “overwhelmingly, people say (the undocumented) should be required to become legal.” [You can download a slideshow of results for both polls here.]

America’s Voice executive director Frank Sharry presented an analysis of results in “battleground” Congressional races that seems to confirm those attitudes among voters. According to the study, in 19 of 21 highly-disputed districts, Republican immigration hardliners who advocated an enforcement-only approach lost to candidates supporting a more comprehensive approach to reform. [You can download the full report here.]

“These are the battleground districts where it was said that Democrats should have run away from the issue,” Sharry said. But, he added, the study showed that when pro-reform candidates discuss immigration “they actually do better than when they run away from it.”

The hardliner strategy backfired, NCLR’s Murguia said: “Stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment did not work with the broader public, and it energized a key voting population.”

NDN’s Rosenberg added there was an “incredible misread” by Republican strategists.

There is no anger towards the immigrants, the striving, entrepreneurial immigrants who’re trying to have a better life in the U.S. (…) There is no evidence that the majority of the American people believe that immigrants are taking their jobs.

If Democrats consolidate this year’s dominance in what Rosenberg called the “Latino Gulf,” from Florida to the West, he said, “the electoral college shifts permanently.”

At least for the time being, Republicans seem to have squandered the headway made by the Bush-Rove team in the last presidential election (when Bush got 44 percent of Latino votes.) Former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin seemed to understand the relevance of the Latino vote when she pointed to it as one of three reasons her ticket lost the election.

But at her press conference yesterday, Palin — the one figure who many Republicans hope will rescue the party from its current state of dejection — did not seem as clear on this point. Ana Marie Cox reported that, when asked how the GOP can win back the votes of women and Hispanics, Palin simply replied: “I treat everybody equally.”

Stil, Murguia warned, the Democrats “should not rest in their laurels and they should not think that Latinos are going to be in their column for good.”

Just as immigration reform played an important role in this election, it will do so in the next.

“I would predict that Latinos will continue to be swing voters, particularly in those key states where they made a difference in this election,” she said. “We’re not different from any other voters, we want to see action on the issues we care about.”