Obama’s Preemptive Strike for the Hispanic Vote

Barack Obama’s re-election campaign has had some rough moments the past few months. Mitt Romney has had a single-minded focus on the state of the economy and Obama’s poor performance in that area. Job growth has stalled and unemployment numbers remain high. Yet President Obama, in a news conference, seemed to be arguing that all is well in the private sector, though total jobs in the private sector remain more than 4 million below the level before the subprime financial collapse.

In Wisconsin, voters decisively backed Governor Scott Walker in the recall election, dealing a blow to public sector unions. And yet in the same speech in which the president said all is well in the private sector, he called for more spending to pay for more jobs (and benefits and pensions) in the public sector.

Not surprisingly, the president, as he has on several other occasions in the past year, decided to change the subject. With polls showing a close race nationally and tight races in many of the battleground states, the president announced last week a change in the administration’s policy regarding the legal status of illegals under age 30 who had been brought to the U.S as children. Much as with Obama's new views on gay marriage and the introduction of the new contraception mandate, the policy shift was, of course, a shameless pander to an important Democrat-leaning group and was universally recognized as such.

However, the political risks of Obama’s action seem smaller than with either of the prior-announced policy reversals. The president’s endorsement of gay marriage solidified his support in the gay community and among young voters, but also may have damaged his chances in some of the more socially conservative swing states, such as North Carolina and Ohio. The contraception mandate was well-received among single women, but may have cost the president the support of some independent Catholic voters -- an important constituency in New Hampshire and several of the Midwest battleground states.

The policy shift on how the Department of Homeland Security will enforce current law, including allowing this one group of individuals to remain in the country unchallenged and apply for two-year work permits, was, not surprisingly, viewed as lawlessness by some critics, including Charles Krauthammer. "This is not discretion," he said. "Discretion is when you treat it on a one-by-one basis on the grounds of extenuating circumstances. This is the declaration of a whole new set of criteria, which is essentially resurrecting the legislation that the Congress has said no to."

The president and his legal team seemed to have concluded the same thing earlier but, whether due to political necessity or new legal thinking, changed their minds:

The president, a constitutional lawyer, believed that creating a special class of people entitled to particular rights was something only Congress could do. At the same time, however, if prosecutors could agree on how to exercise their judgment on a case-by-case basis, without any guarantees, that would be permissible as part of their discretionary power, according to a senior administration official familiar with the decision.

Estimates of the number of people impacted by the policy shift have ranged from the administration’s number of 800,000 to Pew’s estimate of 1.4 million. In any case, the policy change will likely play very well with Hispanic voters, the one voter group where  Obama’s current lead over  Mitt Romney has remained as strong as his 2008 victory over John McCain.

In 2008, the exit polls suggested that Obama won just over 2/3 of the Hispanic vote, a winning margin of approximately 35%, about three times as large as John Kerry’s margin over George Bush in 2004 among Hispanic voters. This huge margin among Hispanics padded Obama’s margin in Southwestern states that shifted to the Democrats, such as Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. Obama won Florida’s Hispanic voters (heavily Cuban) by a smaller margin (less than 3 to 2), but the change from 2004, when Bush carried Hispanics in Florida, may have been enough to move the state to the Democrats.