What The Primary Results Tell Us About Immigration

Our guest blogger is Henry Fernandez, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund focusing on state and municipal policy.

What do Tuesday’s primaries tell us about immigration? Well, we can’t be totally sure yet but it looks like they demonstrate two emerging truths about the changing electorate: (1) the Latino vote is growing in importance in surprising places and the politicians who recognize that and support comprehensive immigration reform benefit from that vote and (2) the perceived need to go hard right against immigrants in Republican primaries creates real problems in general election contests, especially in the west. Let’s look under the hood at three races that got a lot of attention:

  • While netroots and labor progressives rallied around Bill Halter in Arkansas, some Latino leadership was not so sure. According to Juan Mendez, an organizer for Natural Dreamers, which pushes for the DREAM Act in Arkansas, “In our meetings with Blanche Lincoln, she was happy to support the DREAM Act and said she would ask her fellow [Arkansas] Senator [Mark] Pryor to do the same. When we encountered Halter at community meetings, he and his staff would put us off, and even laughed at the idea of publicly co-sponsoring the DREAM Act.” Indeed, Lincoln’s literature targeted the Latino community in English and Spanish, saying she “co-sponsored the Dream Act” and “voted to support comprehensive immigration reform.” Latinos make up just over 5% of the population but Arkansas has the fastest growing Latino population of any state. There are more than 18,000 Arkansas voters who are immigrants or the children of immigrants. So while a small proportion of the vote in Arkansas, this was a very close election decided by about 11,000 votes, and it looks like Lincoln’s clarity on immigration reform and outreach made a difference.
  • In the California Governor’s race, there’s good reason to believe that a once winnable seat for Republicans has begun to slip away. Meg Whitman proved that if you spend $71 million of your own money, you can beat a Tea Party candidate in a Republican primary for Governor. Unfortunately for Meg, she felt she had to join in her opponent Steve Poizner’s bashing of undocumented immigrants to win the primary, so she trotted out former governor Pete Wilson who ended Latino support for Republicans and threw California into the blue column in Presidential races forever after he championed the anti-immigrant Prop 187 in 1994. Whitman went so far as to declare that undocumented teenagers should not be admitted to any California state colleges — forget about paying in-state tuition, they should not even be admitted. This move to the right in a state where well over one-third of the population is Latino, and one-quarter of voters are either naturalized citizens or the children of immigrants, has pushed this race from a tie two months ago to one that heavily leans towards the Democrat Jerry Brown who is now up by an average of 7 points in recent polling.
  • In Nevada, for the last year the Republican party has been salivating at the chance to take on Senator Harry Reid and polling has shown he would lose by double digits — not so anymore. Despite party leadership wanting the more mainstream Sue Lowden, Republican primary voters chose Sharron Angle, a Tea Party favorite who championed a range of “anti-amnesty” positions while supporting Arizona’s “papers please” racial profiling law. Possibly recognizing that her positions might be unpopular in a state which is 25% Latino, with 11.6% of voters Latino and 3.4% Asian, Angle called for requiring that voters show ID before they cast ballots. A bit odd since this is already a requirement. But that’s not all that’s odd about Angle, she also wants to get rid of the Department of Education as well as Social Security and thinks prisoners would benefit from saunas, massages and some Scientology. In any case, Reid is now running about even with Angle, before he has unleashed his millions more in campaign funds to educate voters on her positions. If Reid can also use those resources to turn out Latino voters, he will have a better than average shot at holding this seat.

California and Nevada indicate that Republicans put themselves at serious general election peril when they press anti-immigrant buttons in the primary; while Senator Lincoln shows that Democrats need to be seen as actually pushing hard for immigration reform if they want Latino votes to turn out.

Other polling news this week reinforces the point that Latino voters are not looking for just moral support for immigration reform. Latinos want reform now and Gallup polling suggests they are taking it out on President Obama who has said many of the right things but not yet delivered reform. According to Gallup, Obama has seen his support among Latinos drop 12 points this year for just this reason:


The two major drops in Hispanics’ approval of Obama this year — in February and May — coincide with two periods when the president was under fire for not doing enough to promote comprehensive immigration reform in Congress. . . . Hispanics — and particularly Hispanics who appear

Gallup’s polling indicates that the entirety of Obama’s slippage in the polls since January has come as a result of a steady decline in Latino support, as White and Black support has been virtually unchanged.