Why Hispanics hold the key in 2012

President Obama is scheduled to address Congress in his annual State of the Union address, and then will hit the road to promote his policies with voters. Bill Plante reports on the latest details.

Hispanics, who were responsible for most of U.S. population growth in the last decade, have been a more important part of the electorate each election. Now the largest minority group in the United States, they are poised to play a potentially decisive role in this year's contest between President Obama and his GOP opponent. This has been cause for concern by some Democrats, who worry that Obama's record on immigration may depress his turnout and support within the Hispanic community; the data suggest, however, that they are worrying more than they should.

Consider first the national level. The Obama campaign will be relying heavily on the minority vote, which they hope will be larger in 2012 than in 2008. This is a reasonable expectation given historical trends, as the rise in minority vote share has closely tracked with the rise in minority population share. But there is no guarantee this will happen. Hispanics are the chief driver of the increasing minority population, and if their turnout falls off in 2012, the projected increase in the minority vote would likely not appear. 

Sustaining high Hispanic turnout is necessary, but it is not sufficient. The Obama campaign also needs strong support from the minorities who do vote. My estimates suggest that Obama needs to get at least 75 percent of the minority vote in 2012 to have a secure basis for re-election, given likely drop-off in his white support. African-Americans are the biggest component of the minority vote and seem likely to give Obama the same overwhelming support they did in 2008.

But Hispanics, the second largest component of the minority vote, could be more problematic for Obama. They lack the special tie to Obama that black voters have and they have historically been more variable in their support for Democratic candidates. Moreover, there is significant discontent about Obama’s failure to deliver on immigration reform and the high level of deportations that have taken place on his watch. Obama’s approval rating among Hispanics has been hovering around 50 percent for a number of months, an unimpressive rating among a group that was supposed to be one of his strengths.

While Hispanics may not be completely delighted with Obama’s performance, though, they find him strongly preferable to his prospective GOP opponents. Recent data suggest that, despite all these factors, Hispanic support for Obama in 2012 may well replicate—or even exceed—the wide margin he received from these voters in 2008 (67-31). In a major survey by the Pew Hispanic Center—the gold standard for polling on Hispanics—Obama defeats Romney by 45 points (68-23), a margin 9 points greater than in 2008 (his margin is a little larger against other Republicans). The survey also finds the Democrats’ party identification advantage among Hispanics at 47 points (67-20), the greatest margin the Pew Hispanic Center has ever measured.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the current anti-immigrant tilt of the Republican Party, especially as displayed in the primaries, has decisively turned off Hispanic voters and thrown them into the arms of the Democrats. And the likely nominee, Mitt Romney, who is typically viewed as a moderate compared to the others vying for the GOP nomination, will have difficulty reversing this judgment. On immigration issues, Romney has been aggressively conservative in an effort to outflank his more ideological opponents. He’s promised to veto the DREAM Act if it comes to his desk as president, opposes in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants, and rejects any path to citizenship for the undocumented. More generally, he has consistently sneered at any sign of softness among his primary opponents on these issues, raising the specter of an increasing flood of illegal immigrants coddled by the law and provided with benefits they don’t deserve.

If Hispanic support for the President winds up as strong as it now appears and their turnout holds up—giving Obama at least 75 percent of what should be around 28 percent of the entire vote—the benefits to the Obama campaign would be huge. Crucially, it would give him considerable leeway to lose white support but still win the popular vote. In fact, my estimates indicate that Obama, with this level of minority support, could do just as badly as John Kerry did with the white working class (a 23 point deficit) and white college graduates (an 11 point deficit) and still defeat his opponent. The current level of Hispanic support for the President even suggests that he might come close to matching his 80-percent overall support from minority voters in 2008. If that occurs, he has even more leeway to lose white votes. Amazingly, he could approach the levels at which Congressional Democrats lost these two groups in 2010 (30 points and 19 points, respectively) and still win the popular vote.

Sufficiently strong Hispanic support thus sets Obama up nicely to win the national popular vote (though it does not guarantee it). But as we learned twelve years ago, the winner of the national vote does not always win the election. So, how important are Hispanics to Democrats’ efforts to carry swing states?

There is one area in particular where Obama’s advantage with Hispanics will be especially advantageous: the new swing states of the Southwest—Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. In these three states, Hispanics dominate the minority vote, which averages 36 percent of voters. These three states also happen to be very important to the Obama campaign. If Obama does manage to hold them in addition to the five "easiest" Midwest/Rust Belt states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa), he would likely be only be two electoral votes short of victory, even without Ohio or any of the New South states (Florida, North Carolina, Virginia). Conversely, if the GOP is able to break Obama’s hold on the three Southwestern swing states, the Republican path to victory becomes a lot easier. For example, if the GOP takes all three, plus Ohio (but no other swing state in the Midwest/Rust Belt), they can emerge victorious with just Florida, plus either North Carolina and Virginia from the New South.

But if the data hold up, that shouldn’t come to pass. The prospects simply look too good for Hispanic support for Obama. In that way, it could turn out that Republicans have sacrificed more than they anticipated by ratcheting up the anti-immigrant rhetoric during the primary season; they may have sacrificed the election.

Bio: Ruy Teixera is a Senior Fellow in the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.