Meg Whitman: An Object Lesson for 2012

The Los Angeles Times has a piece on Meg Whitman changing her tune regarding immigration. Saying in an interview a few days back:

The immigration rhetoric the Republican Party uses is not helpful." What's more, she said Tuesday at a George W. Bush Institute conference, "we as a party are going to have to make some changes, how we think about immigration, and how we talk about immigration.

Whitman provides an object lesson in terms of how a changing stance on the immigration issue can have a huge impact in the presidential election, where Republicans will have to move from the far right of the primaries to a right of center stance in the general election. But immigration could be the one issue where backpedaling has no chance of succeeding. And I argue, could be a tipping point in the upcoming election.

In her gubenatorial race, Whitman went far right on the immigration issue during her own primaries, allowing former California Gov. Pete Wilson to endorse her in an ad where he claimed she would be "tough as nails on immigration." She promised enforcement at all costs and then later in the general election told an undocumented student that giving her a chance to attend college in the United States would be taking a seat away from a legal resident. Add to that a former undocumented maid, and Whitman had a mess that no amount of damage control could clean up.

McCain had a similar problem with Latino voters - his emphasis on enforcement at the border shot him in the foot in states like New Mexico where the Latino vote is large and influential. Demographically, Republicans have an immense uphill battle if they take a hard line stance on immigration in the primaries. They would have to win a large majority of independents in order to make up for the advantage that President Obama would get from Latino votes in a general election. Yes, Obama has disappointed Latinos by not being able to fulfill his promise on immigration reform, but he's miles ahead of most Republicans on the issue. States like North Carolina where Latinos have grown sizably are much more in Obama's pocket now than before.

The only thing that could level the playing field, however, is Latino voter apathy. With the emphasis on Secure Communities that the Obama administration has espoused, could Latino voters stay home? Perhaps, but the push to organize, especially among younger Latinos who want the passage of the Dream Act, may make up for that.