The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama might allow millions of illegal immigrants to stay. It would be a huge gamble.

Demonstrators picket against the possible arrivals of undocumented migrants who may be processed at the Murrieta Border Patrol Station in Murrieta, Calif., on July 1. (REUTERS/Sam Hodgson)

The White House is signaling that it could halt deportations for millions more illegal immigrants by the end of the summer -- a prospect that could throw a sizable wrench in the 2014 election.

And while it's generally assumed that Obama's 2012 decision to halt deportations of young illegal immigrants likely paid dividends for Democrats (and himself) in that year's election, the political ramifications of expanding that decision are much more opaque.

Here's why.

1) The 2014 election isn't the 2012 election

The 2014 election is a midterm. That means it's more of a base election, with the most motivated voters being most important. And while polling shows a strong majority of Americans favor legalizing undocumented immigrants and/or providing them a new path to citizenship, those who oppose it are much more motivated.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll last year showed only 13 percent of Americans would be "angry" if Congress didn't approve a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, while 40 percent said they would be "relieved." The same poll showed 30 percent of Americans opposed the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform bill "strongly," while just 19 percent supported it "strongly."

In addition, a March Post-ABC poll showed supporting a path to citizenship was actually a net-negative for a candidate. While 27 percent of registered voters said they would be more likely to back a candidate who supports a path to citizenship, 39 percent said that doing so would make them less likely to support a candidate.

None of these polls asked specifically about Obama effectively legalizing a large number of undocumented immigrants through executive action, so it's not exactly apples to apples. But it's a clear indication of where the enthusiasm lies in the immigration debate, and it's with the opponents of legalization. Which matters in 2014.

2) An executive action is not the same thing as legislation.

Legalizing millions of illegal immigrants through legislative action is one thing; doing it by presidential declaration is another.

A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll showed 45 percent of Americans think Obama has gone too far with his executive actions. We would submit that this number would likely trend up if he were to do something big on immigration by himself.

There was relatively little outcry over Obama legalizing about half a million young illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States by their parents. But Obama's next move could be broader -- extending to as many as 5 million illegal immigrants, or 10 times as many -- and include those who came here of their own volition as adults (but have U.S. citizens as close relatives or have been here for a long time).

And if legalizing immigrants through the normal legislative process is politically risky (as shown above), doing it unilaterally is even more so.

3) The 2014 election isn't the 2012 election, part 2

The 2012 decision helped Obama carry a higher percentage of the Latino vote in his reelection campaign (71 percent) than in 2008 (67 percent). In fact, Latinos were one of very few demographic groups that actually increased their share of the Obama vote between 2008 and 2012. And that helped Obama carry heavily Hispanic swing states like Colorado, Florida and Nevada.

As the New York Times's Nate Cohn noted Monday, though, very few battleground Senate races this year feature large Hispanic populations. In fact, there's basically just one: Colorado. And it's not yet considered pivotal for the Senate majority.

Where is the Senate majority likely to be decided? Red states. We have to wonder how voters in Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia would feel about such an executive order. And if the supposed big electoral benefit to Obama halting more deportations is that it increases Latino turnout, that impact won't be felt much where it matters in the fight for the Senate this fall.

4) Obama doesn't have much political capital on immigration

As we noted last week, immigration has emerged as Obama's worst issue. Supporters of immigration reform would argue that this is because Congress hasn't done anything, and people blame Obama in part. That's fair.

But anytime a politician goes out on a political limb, he or she would prefer to do it on something where the American people are inclined to give him or her the benefit of the doubt. That's not necessarily the case with immigration, given 68 percent of Americans in a CNN/ORC poll disapproved of Obama on this issue.

That could and probably would change for the better if Obama acted on his own. It really couldn't get much worse. But for this and the reasons mentioned above, it's less likely to pay dividends among the politically moderate than one might think at first glance. And those who are in doubt might be inclined to oppose the move.

All of which is to say, doing this thing three months before the 2014 election carries considerable political risk.

Long-term, we emphasize, we could be talking a much different story. That's because the Latino vote will matter much more in the 2016 presidential race -- and beyond. Democrats also relish the idea that Republicans would be faced with talking about deporting illegal immigrants once again. Legalizing illegal immigrants by executive order would essentially dare Republicans to pass legislation aimed at curtailing the effects of Obama's executive order -- a move the GOP base would undoubtedly demand.

But in the near term, for the 2014 election, Obama will be rolling the dice. Given the tough odds Democrats face when it comes to holding the Senate, that might be a gamble he and his party want to take. But it's a gamble nonetheless.