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Will Obama’s delay on immigration cost the Democrats votes among Latinos?

Relatives of employees wait for their loved ones `following a raid at the Oakes Farm fruit and vegetable processing plant in Naples, Fla. (AP Photo/Naples Daily News, Corey Perrine, File)

President Obama’s decision to put off executive action on immigration until after November was perceived as a response to political pressures. Recent polling indicates that support for immigration reform has declined and voters are evenly split with respect to which party is more likely to do a better job handling immigration.

In this context, the political calculations underlying Obama’s decision rests upon three assumptions: Executive action is a net negative for the Democrats’ Senate candidates; any potential decrease in Latino turnout that the delay engenders will have little effect because Latino voters, outside of Colorado, are not sufficiently concentrated in states with competitive Senate races; by acting after November the Democrats will win back the support of immigration-centric voters angered by the delay.

I examine the evidence relevant to the first two assumptions.

Support for the first assumption is evident in polling, since public opinion on this issue is somewhat muddled. In a recent New York Times/CBS Poll, 10 percent of respondents indicated that immigration was the most important issue shaping their vote for Congress (14 percent indicated it was the second most important issue) and over two-thirds supported allowing unauthorized immigrants to stay in the country, 54 percent supported a pathway to citizenship, and 51 percent supported executive action. At the same time when asked if they would be more or less likely to vote for congressional candidates who support a pathway to citizenship 30 percent said this would make them more likely, 39 percent indicated it would make them less likely, and 26 percent responded it would make no difference.

In contrast, for most Latinos immigration reform is the animating issue. A June poll conducted by Latino Decisions for the American Progress Fund suggests that enthusiasm for voting among Latinos would decrease by 54 percent and their support for Democratic candidates would decrease by 57 percent if executive action were not taken before the election. Although these data are from a national sample and may not project to particular state contexts, they suggest the centrality of immigration to the political participation of Latino voters.

At the other end of the spectrum is Arkansas; a state with a fraction of the number of registered Latinos as Colorado (see Table 3). Note that roughly half of Arkansas Latinos are independents. As a consequence, less than 20 percent of the Latino electorate has a high probability of voting Democratic — a number that could be potentially increased twofold if Latino voters in the blue cells were mobilized.

More generally, these data highlight the lack of strong partisan identities for many Latinos. In three states (Arkansas, Georgia, and Michigan) independents are the modal category and in Kansas and North Carolina likely Democrats are a plurality. Thus, only in Colorado, where the Democrats have made significant investments in engaging Latino voters in the last three election cycles, do the Democrats have lopsided support.

This analysis underscores three points.

First, growth in the Latino electorate and these voters’ potential influence on electoral outcomes is occurring everywhere.

Second, while in recent elections Latinos have overwhelmingly favored Democrats, many Latinos, particularly naturalized Latinos and those who have not been engaged by either party, are politically independent. To this end, a consistent finding of Latino Decisions polling is that half of Latino voters have voted Republicans at some point.

Third and most important, as compared to any other voting bloc, immigration is the most important issue for Latino voters.

The third assumption — that action on immigration after the election will be sufficient to win back the support of Latinos angered by the delay — is an open question entirely.  The anemic response to these voters’ most pressing issue, combined with limited partisan outreach, suggests that Latinos have not yet been fully integrated into the political system and that their participation and support should not be taken for granted in 2014 and beyond.

David Damore is a political scientist at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a senior analyst at Latino Decisions.