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A new Latino Decisions poll finds that Latino voters are paying very close attention to the immigration debate in Congress and that a candidate's stance on immigration policy will directly effect how many Latino votes they win or lose. The new poll of 800 Latino registered voters nationwide was conducted in partnership with America's Voice, SEIU, and the National Council of La Raza and delves into Latino attitudes towards how both political parties have positioned themselves on immigration. [results here]

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Overall, 58% of Latino voters now rate immigration reform as the most important issue they want Congress and the President to address, up from 35% who rated immigration reform as the top concern in our November 2012 election eve poll. The economy and jobs was rated second at 38% followed by health care (19%) and education (15%).

When asked if they had read or heard anything about the immigration reform plans Congress was considering a striking 75% of Latino registered voters said yes, including 84% of foreign-born voters. Not only are Latino voters paying attention, but they expect Congress to act on comprehensive immigration reform this year. 74% said it was extremely or very important that Congress pass immigration reform in 2013, and only 6% said it was not important (and 19% said somewhat). Given the state of the economy, some politicians have suggested immigration reform may have to wait until economic reforms are passed, however Latino voters reject the notion that immigration reform must wait. 78% of Latino voters said Congress should focus on immigration reform and the economy at the same time, with only 21% saying immigration reform should wait until later. Support for immediate action on immigration reform was strong across partisanship with 81% of Latino Democrats saying it should happen now and 79% of Independents, and 69% of Latino Republicans.

In an interview with CNN in January, Senator John McCain stated"If we continue to polarize the Latino/Hispanic vote our chances for being in the majority are minimal. This issue of illegal immigration has obviously been a major driving factor in the decision making of the Hispanic voter." Senator McCain was exactly right.

Our poll asked Latino voters if they would be more or less likely to vote Republican if the GOP took a leadership role in passing comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. Overall 44% say they are more likely to vote Republican, with only 8% less likely. In November 2012 when we asked the exact same question, 31% said they would be more likely to vote Republican. Perhaps due to some individual Republican Senators stepping up on this issue even more Latino voters are willing to give the GOP a second look. Looking inside the data, most striking is that 43% of Latinos who voted for Obama saying they would be more likely to vote GOP in the future if the party takes a lead role in immigration reform. However Republican opposition to a pathway to citizenship will greatly hurt their prospects. When asked if they would be more or less likely to vote Republican if the GOP took a leadership role in BLOCKING comprehensive immigration reform 42% said they would be less likely to vote Republican, including 33% of Latino Republicans who say they would be less supportive of their own party of the GOP tries to block immigration reform with a path to citizenship.

On the other side of the aisle, we find immigration policy also effects Democratic votes. We asked the same two questions about likelihood of a Democratic vote if the party takes a lead role in passing or blocking comprehensive immigration reform. If the Democrats are associated with passing immigration reform with a path to citizenship 61% of Latino voters say they are more likely to vote Democrat, including 32% of Latino Republicans. Overall, only 6% said it would make them less likely to vote Democrat. In contrast, if the Democrats are associated with blocking the pathway to citizenship 35% said it would make them less likely to vote Democrat, including 41% of Latino Democrats.

The polling data are very clear: immigration policy stances are closely tied to winning (or losing) the Latino vote. In particular, a substantial percent of partisans are willing to vote across party lines for an opposing party if that party support comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship - 32% of Republicans will crossover as will 43% of Democrats. And, the same holds for defection: Latino voters will vote against their own party if the party blocks immigration reform - 41% of Democrats will defect as will 33% of Republicans.

Perhaps of greatest interest, we presented two hypothetical (split sample) match-ups to Latino voters of a general election scenario with a Democrat and a Republican candidate. I Scenario A we describe a Democrat who supports a path to citizenship, running against a Republican who opposes the path to citizenship, a scenario not far removed from the November 2012 election:

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The Democrat says we are a nation of immigrants, and we can’t just deport 11 million people. Let’s work together to find a way to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants

The Republican says we are nation of legal immigrants. Those who came here illegally have broken the law and we are not going to reward them with citizenship

In Scenario A, the 72% favored the Democrat versus 18% for the Republican. Again, a scenario not far removed from the November 2012 election.

In Scenario B, we flipped the candidates so that a Republican who supports a path to citizenship faced off against a Democrat who opposes a path to citizenship. Under this environment, 63% of Latino favored the Republican versus just 28% for the Democrat.

Further, we asked Latino voters to consider all the times they have voted, in contests for local, state and national candidates, have they ever voted for a Democrat, or for a Republican candidate? Overall, 89% of Latinos have voted Democrat at some point in their life, and 52% have voted Republican at some point in the life. What this suggests is that the right candidate - for either party - can win over Latino voters.

While the Republicans may be buoyed by this finding, at present they have a long way to go in winning over the Latino vote. When asked which party has been most responsible for immigration reform not passing over the last few years, 64% say the Republicans are to blame, compared to 10% who blame the Democrats. And how do Latinos currently evaluate each party's outreach to the Latino community? As of March 2013, things look fairly similar to November 2012. While 72% say the Democrats have done a good job reaching out to Latinos, only 21% think the Republicans have done a good job. In contrast, 45% think the Republicans "don't care too much" about Latinos, and 22% think the Republicans are being hostile towards Latinos. For the Democrats, 17% think the party doesn't care, and 4% think Dems are hostile.

Polling data throughout the 2012 election cycle was suggestive that Latino voters were evaluating Obama and Romney through the lens of their immigration rhetoric and policy stances. The polling data released today is not suggestive, but rather conclusive. What the parties say and do on immigration reform, and especially on a pathway to citizenship is critical in how Latino voters evaluate both parties, and ultimately who they vote for.

Matt Barreto

Matt Barreto
Latino Decisions

Wednesday, 6 March 2013