Hope did not win this election for Barack Obama. Demographics did. Compared to 2008, the president lost ground with the female vote, the youth vote, and the overall electorate; the Hispanic vote was the only group that actually moved more in favor of Obama in 2012. While many people rightly wonder how sweeping a mandate Obama has won, a more basic question is what he actually has a mandate to do. And demographics, not hope, provides an answer.
There were strong hints in Obama’s victory speech that comprehensive immigration reform will be the next big domestic item on the president’s legislative agenda. The issue — unlike health care — is one where, succeed or fail, it’s still a win-win for the Democrats, substantively and politically. The party has no interest in helping Republicans figure out the way to square their fierce no-amnesty instinct with the public’s overwhelming willingness to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Immigration reform is more than the right policy for domestic and international purposes; it is also salt on the wound of a party that bet way too heavily on angry white guys.
The current electoral trajectory is grim for Republicans, and it may be that only by choosing a non-white standard bearer, such as Senator Marco Rubio, can it reverse the slide. George W. Bush got a generous 40 percent of the Hispanic vote based on his religious values and commitment to immigration reform; John McCain won a less impressive 31 percent. Romney got only 27 percent. That’s below bedrock, because the Hispanic electorate is twice as big as it was just 20 years ago, now amounting to over 10 percent of the total.
It may be hard to remember, after this year’s fiery denunciations of illegal immigrants during the Republican primaries, but the GOP was once quite receptive to Hispanics. Beginning with Ronald Reagan’s granting of amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants, through both Bush presidencies to John McCain’s campaign, Republicans were committed to a balanced solution to the problem of illegal immigration. With his demand that illegal workers “self-deport,” Romney broke that consensus.
Obama and his team took advantage of the political opening. First, the administration delivered on the long-sought path to citizenship for the children of illegal immgrants who join the military or go to college, ruling by executive order that such people would no longer be deported. Obama owned the issue, solely, because of Republican recalcitrance.
But if the policy was appealing to Hispanic voters, they still had to be drawn to the polls. The 2012 election was the first in history when a sophisticated campaign of grass-roots political organizing and paid communications was geared solely toward Hispanics, and its appeal wasn’t primarily about immigration. Hispanics, like most Americans, vote on the economy. Latino voters told pollsters that the economy or job creation was their most important issue (53 percent); immigration reform was second at just 35 percent. The Obama campaign took the community seriously, knowing that 20 percent of Latinos consider themselves politically independent and that many of them live in swing states like Florida.
Within the next two years, Democrats will push for a way to turn the 12 million undocumented workers into official guest workers. Further, they will encourage more legal immigration of both high and low-skilled skilled workers, believing that such an influx of specialized workers can help stimulate the overall economy, creating jobs for people already here; Silicon Valley and the American Farmers Association don’t have much in common except a desire to bring in the workers they need to compete with foreign companies.
And, along the way, the push for comprehensive reform will be used to bait the Republican opposition. And bait the Democrats will, because the 2014 mid-term elections will be on the horizon.
It will almost certainly take more than one election cycle for the Republicans to adapt. The House GOP leadership is simply too conservative to fully embrace immigration reform; Jan Brewer, Arizona’s Republican governor, still feeds a hate-filled agenda.
True transformation takes longer. But Republicans can read numbers. The Hispanic vote is, any way you slice it, the American vote.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem.