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.

Polls of Hispanic voters have shown Obama with as much as a 40-point lead so far over Romney. While Obama’s support level among other strongly Democratic voting groups, such as African Americans and Jews, seems to have softened a bit this cycle, the major fear in the Obama camp about Hispanic voters has been about turnout. That fear centered on Obama’s disappointing record on immigration issues -- one of many the president ignored during the year-long health-care fight when his team had the votes to do whatever they wanted on pretty much any issue in Congress.

Concerns about Hispanic turnout also reflect the high mobility of Hispanics, who move at a higher rate between the states than other groups do, and often do not register to vote in their new locations. States such as North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia have seen very large increases in their Hispanic population in the last ten years. While there are about 10 million more Hispanics than African Americans in the U.S. at this point, there are fewer Hispanic citizens than African Americans. In addition, the Hispanic population is skewed towards the under age 18 group due to a far higher birth rate (3.5 per woman of child-bearing age) than for other groups (2 or fewer). As a result, while Hispanics make up 16% of the population, they may account for only 8 to 9% of registered voters in any cycle, barely half of their population share.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida had been considered to be one of the top prospects for Romney’s VP selection. With a new biography and autobiography of Rubio due out next week, and with Rubio working on offering up a bipartisan version of a DREAM Act in the Senate, the Obama announcement on Friday may have diminished the prospects for Rubio’s selection. Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod has seemed obsessed with Rubio, and he may have pushed  Obama’s preemptive strike against him.

Now even if Rubio releases a Senate bill (one that, unlike Obama’s action, will be clearly lawful), it will seem like a Johnny-come-lately-to-the-party approach. To the extent that Romney thinks his chances in Colorado and Nevada are now not that great, it may focus his VP thinking more on the Midwest than the Southwest, and to either Ohio Senator Rob Portman or Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, who is Catholic.

Florida is a state that Romney has to win, but  its Hispanic population consists mainly of Cubans and Puerto Ricans, for whom Obama’s  policy shift matters far less. Romney may believe he can win Florida without Rubio, a view seconded by New York Times statistics guru Nate Silver. On the other hand, Romney’s current bus trip is through six states -- four of them part of the Democrats’ “blue wall." These are states John Kerry won in 2004. They include New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin (plus Ohio and Iowa), which suggests that Romney sees a path to victory without winning back the states McCain lost in the Southwest.

New Mexico is considered safe for Obama. Colorado and Nevada between them have 15 Electoral College votes. Michigan (16) and Pennsylvania (20) each have more, and  Wisconsin (10) plus Iowa (6) would also substitute. While Nevada  has looked like an uphill climb for Romney even before Friday’s announcement, Colorado was polling close to even.  It will be interesting to see if there is any shift in the polls in these states following the announcement. If there is, I expect it to be small.

On balance, the Obama announcement is likely to facilitate Hispanic registration efforts and solidify Obama’s lead among Hispanics. Those who are most vocal in their opposition to Obama’s action were likely not in his camp anyway.