Four years ago in Iowa, Republican caucus-goers chose illegal immigration as the most important issue facing the country. The issue of how to deal with over 10 million unauthorized immigrants is not yet playing a cerntral role in the 2012 GOP race, but fresh numbers from the Pew Hispanic Center reveal that Republicans have made little progress since 2008 in courting a fast-growing Hispanic voting bloc, two-thirds of whom voted for Barack Obama last time around.
In their basic political party identification -- the continental plates of American politics -- 67 percent of Hispanics identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, compared with 20 percent who lean toward Republicans. The 47-point Democratic advantage is larger than at any point in more than a decade of polls, including 2008, when 26 percent of Hispanics sided with the Republican Party. As we noted in the Washington Post yesterday, Obama leads Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney by a 68 percent to 23 percent margin among Hispanic voters in a hypothetical general election match-up.
The stakes for Republicans to increase their share of the Hispanic vote are high. The percentage of whites in the electorate dropped from 89 percent in 1972 to 74 percent in 2008, but John McCain received 90 percent of his support from whites. With more than eight in 10 black voters supporting the Democratic nominee in every recent election, Hispanic voters are key to expanding Republican support among the growing non-white population.
In both size and rate it's an extremely significant sector: The Hispanic population grew from 35 to 50 million in the past ten years according to census data, four times the pace of the overall public. Today, about one in six Americans of all ages is Hispanic. Hispanics made up more than four in ten New Mexico voters in 2008 and may count for more than one in six voters in Florida, Arizona, and Nevada in 2012 according to Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, all swing states that could play a decisive role.
Despite Republicans losing the Hispanic vote in every presidential election going back to 1972, Hispanic views on abortion, religion, immigrant deportations, and jobs offer potential avenues to winning Republicans support. Hispanics express greater opposition to abortion than the public overall, and over six in 10 say religion is very important in their lives, compared with about half of all those who lean Democratic and just over four in ten white Democrats.
Heightened unemployment among Hispanics -- over 11 percent in recent government data -- also might be a point of weakness for Obama. Nearly all Hispanic voters in the Pew poll said jobs are an important issue to them in the 2012 election, with half calling it "extremely important."
Obama's record high deportation rates have also spurned Hispanics. Nearly six in ten Hispanics in the new Pew survey disapprove of Obama's handling of immigrant deportations. Even so, no Republican candidates have called for fewer deportations, and Mitt Romney's heated rhetoric on illegal immigration has gained wide attention in the Hispanic media, which could weaken appeals in a general election.
While most Hispanics say stricter border security and enforcement of current laws are important in dealing with illegal immigration, about nine in ten support allowing young adults who were brought to the U.S. illegally to become legal residents if they go to college or serve a term in the military.
The wide Democratic advantage among Hispanics may help Obama in 2012, but much of their electoral clout has yet to be realized, due both to lower eligibility and turnout rates. Only two in three adult Hispanics are eligible to vote, compared with over nine in ten of all Americans. Even among those who are eligible, a mere 50 percent cast a ballot in 2008, compared with 65 percent of blacks and 66 percent of whites. As a result, the share of Hispanic voters in the electorate is increasing at a slower rate than the size of the Hispanic population overall.