Immigration Reform Won't Be a "Bonanza" for Democrats

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The big Politico story today is on the potential gains Democrats could reap from comprehensive immigration reform. But rather than go in a sensible direction—that Democratic support for reform will strengthen the party’s ties with Latino and Asian American voters, giving the latter a further stake in Democratic success—Politico argues that immigration reform will transform the electoral map by delivering millions of new votes to Democrats. Here’s the nut of the argument:

If these people had been on the voting rolls in 2012 and voted along the same lines as other Hispanic voters did last fall, President Barack Obama’s relatively narrow victory last fall would have been considerably wider … Key swing states – [including] Florida, Colorado and Nevada - would have been comfortably in his column. And the president would have come very close to winning Arizona. Republican Mitt Romney, by contrast, would have lost the national popular vote by 7 percentage points, 53 percent to 46 percent, instead of the 4-point margin he lost by in 2012, and would have struggled even to stay competitive in GOP strongholds like Texas, which he won with 57 percent of the vote.

Both Nate Cohn at The New Republic and Harry Enten at The Guardian have a field day with this “analysis,” and for good reason. Politico makes a whole host of unjustifiable assumptions about the current and future political environment. To wit, Politico assumes that all 11 million unauthorized immigrants are Latinos, that each will become citizens, that all will register to vote, and that all will vote for Democrats by the 71–27 margin that President Obama captured in his reelection bid.

This is nonsense.

As Enten notes, there’s no reason to use the 11 million figure. First, 1 million of those immigrants are under the age of 18, and of the remaining 10 million, one-fifth aren’t Latino. A large number are Asian, and hundreds of thousands come from Africa and Europe. Their voting patterns are less stable than those of Latino voters, and there’s no guarantee that—if they became citizens and registered voters—they would vote Democrats by wide margins. And this is all to say nothing of the fact that these voters are also likely to reside in large states where their votes have low marginal value.

This leaves us with roughly 8 million unauthorized Latino immigrants.

As Cohn points out, not all of them want citizenship. According to the most recent survey from Latino Decision, only 87 percent say they would apply for citizenship if it became available, and even that is likely too high. But let’s say that the remaining 6.96 million immigrants became citizens, and registered to vote. Just 50 percent of eligible Latino voters voted in the last election, if that holds true in eleven years, that’s 3.5 million additional people voting in a presidential election. (Enten has an even lower number—he predicts 1.7 million additional voters, if unauthorized Latino immigrants become citizens at the same rate as their eligible counterparts.)

When combined with the general population growth, this is a whole lot of nothing. “Newly legal immigrants,” writes Cohn, “ would only add 0.6 percentage points to the Democratic nominee’s share of the vote in 2028, or increase the margin of victory by 1.3 points.”

So much for Politico’s “bonanza.”

Still, while Politico’s take is wrong, it reflects the thinking of a lot of Republicans, who fear the political implications of building a path to citizenship for millions of Latino immigrants. It’s why Marco Rubio’s office blasted a press release debunking the analysis—it doesn’t want Republicans to get skittish.

Rubio is right that the political effects of comprehensive immigration reform are overstated. But they are there—Democrats do stand to strengthen their advantage with Latino and Asian American voters. What Republicans gain, on the other hand, is a chance to compete. Which, given their current poor standing, is far better than nothing.