New York Times (Upshot)
By Nate Cohn
December 15, 2014
A month after President Obama’s decision to defer deportation and offer work authorization to millions of undocumented immigrants, his action not only looks like a winner, but it also seems to be a fairly promising sign for Democrats after the disastrous midterm elections last month.
This is not because Mr. Obama’s immigration decision has proved to be popular. In fact, it is, over all, unpopular. Polls show that a majority of adults oppose his plan.
But as is the case on many issues, the politics of immigration reform are not simply about the issue’s popularity in national public opinion polls. They are also about intensity and coalitions: Who are the voters that really care about the issue, and how much do they matter? On immigration, the answer is fairly clear. Hispanic voters care a lot, and matter a lot.
That large majorities of Hispanic adults support Mr. Obama’s decision isn’t at all surprising. What is more telling is the extent to which Mr. Obama’s approval rating among Hispanic voters seems to have improved. Both Pew Research and Gallup show Mr. Obama’s approval rating rising into the mid-60s, up from around 50 percent earlier in November. The survey samples are not huge, but they are not small either — probably a combined 600 respondents — and they show a decisive, similar and appropriately timed movement toward Mr. Obama.
There may not be a better example of a domestic policy change leading to a double-digit increase in a president’s approval rating among the targeted demographic group. Killing Osama bin Laden didn’t boost Mr. Obama’s approval rating by even 10 points among the public at large.
To a certain extent, it was easy for Mr. Obama to make big gains among Hispanics. He had a lot of opportunities. The president won 71 percent of Hispanic voters in 2012, but since then his approval rating among them had sunk about 20 points, so there was room for improvement. These Democratic-leaning voters are presumably the easiest for Mr. Obama to win back.
Nonetheless the gain is extremely impressive. By signing a piece of paper and taking a trip to Las Vegas, Mr. Obama boosted his rating among Hispanics, who make up 14 percent of the adult population, by around 15 points. He was not assisted by weeks of national media attention — the racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., interceded soon after the announcement. There was no prolonged national campaign to hammer the message home and certainly no television advertisements. The Republicans didn’t help him out by shutting down the government, as some thought they might. If there had been a shutdown this month, it would have been because of a dispute over financial reform, not immigration reform. Few would have predicted that three weeks ago.
And at the same time, there was not much evidence that the decision hurt Mr. Obama much among non-Hispanic voters. Now, it was hard for immigration to visibly damage Mr. Obama among non-Hispanic voters for the exact opposite reason that the issue helped him among Hispanic voters: His approval ratings among non-Hispanics were so low that policies would need to be particularly unpopular to drive them further down.
But it is doubtful that it hurt Mr. Obama much among the voters who matter most to his party — the Democratic-leaning or persuadable voters who supported or considered supporting him in 2012, but are now disillusioned by his performance. Most of the people who strongly opposed Mr. Obama’s decision were probably Republican base voters. The balance of public polling data suggests that most persuadable voters are fairly sympathetic to Democratic views on immigration reform, even if they opposed Mr. Obama’s action. Even if many persuadable voters were outraged, the Republicans did not vigorously press their case. The issue will probably fade from memory, if it hasn’t already.
Mr. Obama’s decision will eventually fade from the minds of Hispanic voters as well. But the longevity of the bump is probably less significant than its size and the fact that it happened. It may be a sign that Democratic-leaning voters who currently disapprove of Mr. Obama’s performance will come flocking back to the Democrats the moment the 2016 campaign arouses their partisanship. It is a sign that although these voters may be dissatisfied with Mr. Obama’s performance, they remain quite receptive to Democratic messages on the issues that brought them to the party in the first place.
In a way, we’ve been here before. In the fall of 2011, after the debt ceiling debacle, Mr. Obama’s approval rating slipped to about the point where it is today. And his approval rating among Hispanic voters dropped to about where it was before his immigration decision.
Yet his overall approval rating would rise to 50 percent by Election Day, just a year later. His 71 percent showing among Hispanic voters, according to the exit polls, was even more than he won in 2008. The voters who traditionally lean Democratic, at least outside the South and coal country, returned to his side. The Obama campaign employed a diverse suite of messages to appeal to every facet of the Democratic coalition: contraception and same-sex marriage for young, secular and well-educated voters; Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital and the auto bailout for working-class voters; and, yes, deferred action for undocumented minors to appeal to Hispanic voters.
Whether the next Democrat will reassemble the coalition that re-elected Mr. Obama remains to be seen. That said, Mr. Obama’s rebound among Hispanic voters may be a sign that the tactics that worked for the Obama campaign in 2012 might still work in 2016.
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