Last night, when President Obama spoke at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute press gala, he looked like he practically expected to get heckled over his decision to delay executive action (which could include relief for millions of unauthorized immigrants) until after the election. When a protester finally stood up and shouted "Mr. President, stop the deportations. We need relief now," he looked less surprised than weary. After all, his rocky relationship with immigration-reform groups has caused him to get heckled many times during his administration. You can see the exchange starting at about 29 minutes, here:
It was clear from last night's speech that Latino leaders are frustrated with Obama — and that Obama is a little frustrated with their frustration. Democrats are growing concerned that Latino voters are too upset with the president to vote for his party in November — and that could cost the Democrats at least one key Senate race. Last night, Obama placed the responsibility on Latino leaders to get Latinos out to vote. "if we want [immigration reform] legislation to happen sooner rather than later, then there's one more thing I need you to do — I've got to have you talk to your constituents and your communities, and you've got to get them out to vote."
But just because Obama got heckled at an event full of Latino leaders doesn't mean those leaders aren't making an effort to get Latino voters to support Democrats. It's definitely true that Latino voters are frustrated with Obama and the Democrats right now, but that's more of a long-term problem for Democrats than a short-term one. Here are three key reasons why:
1) The people in the room with Obama are also the ones who are still mobilizing voters for Democrats
Here's the fundamental paradox among immigration reformers. For the most part, the people who follow policy closely enough to feel most betrayed by President Obama are also the people who follow politics closely enough to understand how important it is that Republicans not control Congress. That's true of advocates and organizers outside DC as well.
So, for example, in Colorado — the one 2014 Senate race in a state with a large Latino population — the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition is simultaneously organizing civil disobedience against Sen. Michael Bennet, who isn't up for re-election this year, and trying to mobilize thousands of Latino voters to turn out for Sen. Mark Udall, who is.
As I wrote last month about the Colorado race:
The good news for Democrats is that in Colorado - the one Senate race where Latino anger might be a problem - there's a very strong voter-mobilization effort. "Our movement, especially here in Colorado, has had a proven track record of turning out voters," says Sonia Marquez of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. She points to the state legislature, which has become heavily pro-immigrant over the past few years.
[...]Marquez admits that Democrats have "made it very difficult for us to go out in the community and explain this to (Latinos), to try to energize people as to why they should even turn out."
But at the end of the day, she says, she thinks what really drives Latinos to the polls is a desire to make their voices heard: "Even though it's a challenge, we know that voting will continue to grow our power. And I truly believe that that's what's turning out Latino and API voters in our state." And having a ground game to remind Latinos of that duty certainly doesn't hurt.
2) It would take a massive drop in turnout to swing a race
Ground game matters for elections: political scientists think that voter-mobilization efforts are as important as the party's actual policies. But voter mobilization can't be separated from enthusiasm — and despite the efforts of the organizers, Latino voters in Colorado aren't enthusiastic about voting.
Marquez isn't as optimistic about turnout as she was a few weeks ago. "The last few weeks of September were kind of a challenge," she admits. "People say, 'We don't really see the value in voting, neither one of them are on our side.'" Her organizers are still doing their best to tell voters that voting "is the way we build our power and make change," but right now it seems that enthusiasm is genuinely low.
But in order for low enthusiasm among one voter group to really shake up a race, it would have to result in a massively lower turnout. Because Latinos vote so heavily for Democrats, it would take a huge reduction in turnout to really turn a Democrat's margin of victory into a margin of defeat.
The most recent poll in Colorado that breaks down Latino preferences (conducted by left-leaning pollster Public Policy Polling) has Mark Udall losing to Republican challenger Cory Gardner. But it's not because of a drop in Latino support — the poll shows that voters who have made up their minds prefer Udall by a margin of 3.5 to 1. More importantly, it estimates that Latinos will make up 14 percent of the electorate — which would require them to turn out as heavily as they did in the presidential election year of 2012.
In such a close election, turnout will still matter a great deal — and that's why organizers are working so hard to get Latinos to turn out for Udall. But it's unlikely to be the deciding factor that sways a race, especially when so few Latinos vote for Republicans.
3) Right now, Democrats definitely have a 2016 Latino problem — but they have more time to fix it
None of this is to say that Democrats should never be worried about low Latino voter enthusiasm. When the 2016 elections roll around, the Latino vote will matter in more than one state — both in the congressional and presidential elections. At that point, low Latino voter enthusiasm will be a tremendous problem. But as I wrote in September, as long as the president keeps his new promise, and acts on immigration by the end of 2014, he should be able to repair his relationship with Latino voters:
For the most part, though, when Democrats will really need the Latino vote is in 2016, for the presidential election. And as long as Obama keeps his new promise, and takes executive action by the end of 2014, Latinos will probably be willing to forgive the delay, says Barreto. "There's no question that it's a winning issue for Democrats," he says. "The problem of the delay is mostly a mobilization problem."
That's not to say all will be forgiven. Many young Latino activists, many of whom are themselves unauthorized, have lost faith in both Democrats and Republicans to look out for their community. (This includes Obama's heckler at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute speech: she was identified as 31-year-old Blanca Hernandez, a paralegal in DC and a beneficiary of the president's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.) If the next generation of Latino leaders doesn't swing Democratic, the party has a bigger problem.
But this generation of Latino leaders, as frustrated as they are with the president right now, didn't need to be told that they needed to get out the vote. They're trying their best. Whether or not it succeeds, right now, is beyond their control.