This story has been updated.
For the third time in two months, the White House late last week sought to put Republicans on the defensive on an issue that could energize a significant portion of the Democratic base.
In all three cases, the response from Republicans has largely been to keep calm and carry on, banking on surveys that show the economy remains the No. 1 issue on the minds of all voters – whether they’re Hispanic voters, gay voters, young voters or otherwise.
But will the economy really trump all other issues this fall?
Recent polling suggests that Obama’s latest move could have a significant impact on enthusiasm among Hispanic voters.
A Pew Hispanic Center survey released last December showed that 59 percent of Hispanics disapproved of Obama’s handling of deportations, while 27 percent approved.
The same survey showed that 91 percent of Hispanics approved of allowing those brought to the U.S. illegally as children to become legal residents if they go to college or serve in the military.
That would suggest there’s plenty of room for growth when it comes to Hispanic enthusiasm for Obama following his move last week.
In the days since Obama’s surprise announcement, Democrats have sought to seize offense on the immigration issue, while Republicans have struggled to respond; presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney on Sunday repeatedly declined to answer when asked by CBS’s Bob Schieffer about the merits of Obama’s proposal.
But as with the student loan and same-sex marriage moves, it remains an open question whether Obama’s immigration decision will provide him only a temporary boost or shift the electoral calculus in key battleground states.
Justin H. Gross, an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill who also serves as the chief statistician for Latino Decisions, argued that in the words of Vice President Biden, Obama’s deportation move is “potentially a game-changer” in swing states with high Hispanic populations.
He noted that while the economy remains paramount, a Latino Decisions survey late last year showed that 53 percent of Hispanics have a close friend or family member who is undocumented or know someone who has been detained.
“So, even folks who are along the spectrum of legal statuses, this is really a major issue,” he said.
The timing could also be a factor in voter enthusiasm among liberals more broadly. Obama’s announcement came one week after the Netroots Nation conference of liberal activists, where many attendees pointed to Obama’s shift on same-sex marriage as a success that those in favor of immigration reform should push to replicate.
“More broadly among liberals, who tend to vote Democratic, between these two moves – one which was very symbolic on gay marriage, one which has an immediate impact on people’s lives – these kinds of things are the thing that make liberal voters go from, ‘Yeah, I’ll vote for him, but I’m disappointed,’ to ‘I’ll be more active,’” Gross said.
The flip side, of course, is that national polls conducted before Obama’s move late last week show immigration as only a blip when it comes to the issues voters care about. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, “economy/jobs” ranked No. 1 at 52 percent of those polled; “immigration/illegal immigration” was the top choice of less than one percent.
Bettina Inclán, the Republican National Committee’s Hispanic outreach director, said in a roundtable at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual summit Friday night that the Republican Party should continue to keep economic issues at the core of its message this fall.
“We strongly believe that we don’t have to change our message,” she said.