When President Obama recently decided to delay executive action on immigration until after the midterm elections, many Latino and immigrant-rights advocates vowed to make Democrats pay a political price for the reversal.
By and large, Latinos aren't going to suddenly start voting for a Republican Party that has spent the last year running away from "amnesty." But if Latinos feel that neither party cares about them, there's less reason for them to show up to the polls at all.
So how much will this matter for turnout? And what will the effect of Latino anger at Obama's delay actually be on Democrats, in 2014 and beyond? Here's a breakdown:
Democrats could see a drop in voter enthusiasm among Latinos
"I don't think there's any question that it's going to be harder to motivate and mobilize Latinos in 2014 than it would have been if there had been an announcement [by Obama on immigration]," says Matt Barreto of polling firm Latino Decisions.
Barreto points to polling that his firm did earlier in the summer, when they asked Latino voters how they would feel if President Obama decided not to sign any executive orders on immigration. 54 percent of Latinos said they would be less enthusiastic about turning out to vote, and 57 percent said they would be less enthusiastic about voting for Democrats.
Barreto says that in 2010 and 2012, Latinos were also frustrated with inaction — but in both cases, decisive moves by Democrats in the months before the election (Harry Reid's attempts to bring the DREAM Act up for a vote in 2010; President Obama's announcement of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012) caused enthusiasm to spike. In 2014, though, they've missed that opportunity.
Does enthusiasm matter for Democrats? Lack of enthusiasm among Latino voters probably won't matter for most short-term races — although there are a few exceptions. And this could make a big difference in the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats' main concern right now is holding onto the Senate in November, and most of the states with key Senate races don't have many Latinos. (This fact was reportedly one reason why the White House delayed executive action.) The one big exception here is Colorado, which does have a sizable Latino population — and so will be the key race to watch this cycle to test how much Latino anger at the Obama administration actually matters.
Outside the Senate, there are several tight races where Latinos will matter. "Florida's going to have a super-close governor's election, and the Latino vote will decide that," says Barreto. So will Illinois.
Meanwhile, Frank Sharry of America's Voice lists a handful of House races where Latino turnout could matter: "Think of Joe Garcia in Florida, in one of the most competitive races around, where it's mainly Latino immigrants who vote in the district." (Other vulnerable Democratic incumbents he lists include Raul Ruiz in California and Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona.)
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."
In Colorado, Democrats may be able to rally Latino voters anyway
Political scientists agree that a campaign's voter-turnout operation — its "ground game" — is at least as important as individual voter enthusiasm, if not more so. "The turnout is based on a ground game as much as it's based on the policies of a party," says political scientist Paul Frymer of Princeton.
And, Fryer adds, Democrats have been paying particularly close attention to turning out voters in urban areas lately — something that will help them with Latinos.
The strength of a campaign's voter-turnout effort is partly a factor of how much money it has. But it's not totally independent from enthusiasm. "The canvassers and organizers have to have something to sell," Barreto points out. "They're talking to voters about the issues. This delay just makes their job harder."
Does the ground game matter for Democrats? 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' group is protesting outside the office of Senator Michael Bennet at the same time as they're working to mobilize voters for November. Bennet isn't up for re-election, but he is chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — and Marquez says he's rumored to have had a hand in the decision to delay executive action. (Senator Bennet's office says he did not request the delay.) 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.
Democrats may look for other ways to appeal to Latinos
When a constituency isn't satisfied with a party's policy record, says Princeton's Frymer, party leaders will often use high-profile appointments to assure their support. Sonia Sotomayor, he posits, is one example of this — an appointee who was chosen, at least in part, in recognition of Latinos' growing influence.
Similarly, if Democrats are worried about Latinos in 2016, he says, there might be an opportunity to put a Latino in the vice-presidential slot.
Political scientist Robert Preuhs of Metropolitan State University in Denver believes this sort of "visual leadership" is important to voters as well as interest-group elites. "Those types of orientations can offset a general decline" in enthusiasm, he says, especially during midterm elections — when enthusiasm and turnout are lower anyway.
Does visual leadership matter for Democrats? Preuhs thinks that the Democrats are in pretty good shape — especially in Colorado. "There's a new Latino face on the Democratic Party right now. Lots of Latino state legislators. Visual leadership within the Democratic Party is clear."
But "visual leadership" might not always be so good for Democrats. The younger generation of Latino leaders — many of whom are unauthorized immigrants themselves — are leading opposition to Obama and the Democrats for delaying immigration action. "The DREAMers are the next generation of Latino leaders in this country," says advocate Sharry. "Are they going to be as true blue as some of the current crop of leaders? I don't know. I think this is going to be one of those experiences that it takes a long time to get over."
The Democratic Party may get hurt among Latino voters in the long run
"My sense is that once you get people to vote once," says political scientist Preuhs, "they're more likely to vote the next time. The big question is how much of that habit has been instilled in the Latino community" — who are just beginning to become high-propensity voters over the last few election cycles.
Midterm electorates tend to be less diverse and older than electorates in presidential years — making them much harder terrain for Democrats. Instilling the habit of voting might help offset some of that. And the rapid growth of the Latino electorate, thanks to immigrants becoming naturalized citizens and US-born Latinos turning 18, means that there are plenty of first-time voters this year.
Do voter habits matter for Democrats? This won't be something that shows up in the exit polling in 2014. But Barreto warns that it might delay the "purpling" of states that are growing more diverse. "North Carolina and Georgia have hundreds of Latino registered voters that are just starting to enter the electorate, and (Democrats) are just starting to engage with those voters as much as possible. They could matter in 2014 — they could also matter in 2016." And beyond.
Why does turnout matter, anyway?
It's important to remember that none of these factors mean that Latinos will vote more heavily for Republicans — instead, they just might not vote at all. "It doesn't mean Latinos won't still win 3 out of 4 votes, it just means they're going to be winning 3 out of 4 of less votes," says Barreto.
And because Latinos vote so heavily for Democrats, it would take a huge reduction in turnout to really cut into a Democrat's margin of victory. In Colorado, for example, the most recent NBC-Marist poll shows Latinos at 12 percent of likely voters, and Latinos who have a preference support Udall by more than 2 to 1.
A quarter of those Latinos would have to decide to stay home in order to drop the net effect of the Latino vote from a 4.5 percentage-point contribution to Udall, to a 3.5 percentage-point one. And since Udall is up by 6 percent in the poll among all voters, even that isn't going to hurt much.
If Republicans ever made a serious effort to reclaim some credibility among Latinos, Democrats might have a problem. But for the moment, it appears, turnout isn't going to sway an election.
That doesn't mean that it isn't important. Just because Democrats aren't in danger of losing the Colorado Senate race, for example, doesn't mean they should feel okay with Latinos in Colorado deciding that the political system doesn't care about them enough to make their vote worthwhile. Turnout matters because of democracy, not horse races.
This means Marquez' group's strategy — turning out Latino voters for Udall, while shaming his colleague Bennet — isn't as much of a paradox as it seems. Latino anger isn't going to do much to hurt Democrats in 2014. But Latino support for the party still helps them in the long run.