While immigration has been sidelined lately by debates over healthcare and jobs, new survey data today gets at the key question on the potential political impact of either party's border policy: How much do Latino voters actually care about immigration? Mitt Romney has bet they don't care very much. The presumed Republican nominee has stuck by the hard-line immigration position he adopted during the primary and has instead tried to sell a jobs message to Hispanics, arguing that they care about the economy far more than anything else.
This may have been a miscalculation, as Romney has still failed to poll anywhere near the 44 percent of the Latino vote George W. Bush captured in 2004. Today, the polling firm Latino Decisions offers some of the most comprehensive data yet to explain why, looking at the the key swing state of Florida. The poll asked Latino registered voters, “What are the most important issues facing the [Hispanic/Latino] community that you think Congress and the President should address?” Thirty percent said immigration reform or the Dream Act tops their list, while 30 percent chose fixing the economy, and 17 percent picked unemployment. So economic issues in general are more important, but immigration remains hugely important.
But the next question is even more interesting. The poll asked the Latino voters if they would be more likely to vote for a hypothetical candidate who espoused a tough or supportive stance on immigration. Fully 80 percent of Florida Latinos said they would be more likely to back a candidate with a supportive immigration stance, while 46 percent said they would be less likely to support a candidate with a tough stance. Just 4 percent said they would be less likely to back a candidate with a liberal immigration policy stance.
Overall, these findings confirm what plenty of other polling data has shown -- that immigration is probably more important than Republicans admit, but not necessarily the most important thing to Latino voters. However, the Florida poll is particularly interesting because of the unique nature of Florida’s Latino population. About two-thirds of Florida’s 1.5 million registered Latino voters are from either Cuba or Puerto Rico, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy, which both enjoy unique immigration policies. Puerto Ricans, of course, are American citizens at birth, while Cubans can take advantage of political asylum rules that don’t apply to immigrants from other Latin American countries. This would suggest that most Florida Latinos would be unconcerned with whether a presidential candidate has a tough or supportive stance on immigration -- it doesn’t apply to them. Indeed, Cubans have, for years, voted Republican, unlike most other Hispanics and despite the party's harsh immigration stance.
But the Latino Decisions question on the hypothetical candidate’s policies suggests that Cuban and Puerto Rican Floridians are beginning to care more about immigration than many analysts believe. This, in turn, suggests that immigration has become an increasingly salient issue among all voters of Hispanic decent, not just those who will be directly affected by deportations or a Dream Act. Given its demographic makeup, Florida should give Republicans their best chance of winning the Latino vote, but this poll spells trouble. (It also found Obama beating Romney 59 to 32 percent among decided Latino voters.)
Indeed, one need only look at Arizona to see how much worse the picture is for Republicans in other states with big Latino populations. According to Latino Decisions, immigration ranks higher (43 percent) than the combination of the two economic issues (39 percent) asked about in the survey in the Southwest border state, which has been consumed by immigration debates in recent years.