Obama and the Latino Vote: Falling in Love Again?

DipticBy Dr. Ana Margheritis, Reader in International Relations at University of Southampton (Twitter, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Ana here.


A bold attempt to regain initiative capacity is shaping the last years of Obama’s second term in office. In late 2014 he announced the launching of two executive actions of great impact in domestic and foreign policy: a relief program to stop the deportation of millions of undocumented migrants (mostly from Latin America) and the initiation of conversations to reestablish relations with Cuba. These two decisions affect directly sectors of the electorate of Hispanic origin that have been crucial in his electoral victories. It is plausible then to expect that these measures will have some repercussions in the next electoral cycle. David Ayón and I addressed the roots and (still uncertain) fate of these initiatives in our publication entitled “Obama’s Latin Turn: A Strategy of Structural Change?” forthcoming next month in Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica.

We argue that the content and timing of this policy shift cannot be understood without taking into account the evolving demographic and political profile of the highly diverse but increasingly integrated Latin American immigrant groups in the US, and in particular their role in domestic politics. We trace the careful crafting of a special relationship between the president since he was presidential candidate and the community of Hispanic origin, the use of specific tools and policies, the arduous negotiations to cope with obstacles to immigration reform, the launching of executive actions to overcome the stalemate, and the subtle mechanisms that allowed Obama to rely on the Latino vote to win elections since 2008. The historical and statistical account in our article leads us to questions of relevance for political scientists and practitioners alike: Is the next presidential election the opportunity for Democrats to forge a new structural and sustainable re-alignment in the party’s electoral coalition? Would this finally be “the time of change” as Obama announced it in his first campaign?

Far from predicting an outcome, we point out to the potential impact of the presidential leadership on the articulation of electoral and governing coalitions in the long term. We place this variable in historical context and in a broader domestic politics dynamic. Here are some of our points.

First, we note that it would be problematic to generalize about a proper “latin” community. Immigrants of Hispanic descent in the US are a highly diverse group. Their potential capacity to mobilize politically is proved and, therefore, they have to be included in candidates’ political calculus. But the formation of a coherent and independent front is still a matter of controversy. In addition, their voting turnout is still very low.

Second, we build upon other studies to show that Latinos’ electoral behavior is likely to be shaped by a number of factors, not just the fate of immigration reform. As Matt Barreto and Gary Segura explain in detail in Latino America: How America’s Most Dynamic Population is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation, the latino vote has been influenced by several factors lately: immigration matters to (mostly first generation) immigrants but they also care about questions of equality, religion, security, economics, and candidates’ ties with the community. Thus, the overall impact of recent presidential actions on the entire Latino community may be limited. And it would be misleading to assume that Latinos might act as a captive constituency for any party.

Third, we note that electoral times often polarized political views on controversial issues. Over the years, Obama managed to maintain hope and positive expectations alive among Latinos, despite generalized disappointment with lack of effective changes. The Hispanic community took note of outreaching moves such as the appointment of high-rank officials of Hispanic descent, the push to the Dream Act, and presidential opposition to a very controversial immigration law in Arizona. It also took note of the latest bold initiatives above. According to a Gallup’s survey, immediately after the announcement of such measures Obama’s popularity among Hispanic-Americans increased by 12 points, rewarding him with a 64% of performance approval. Would it possible to maintain that rate of approval if the Executive cannot unlock institutional vetoes? This is an open question since the presidential decisions are facing opposition not only in Congress but also from federal courts (see details in the recent analysis of the Migration Policy Institute: http://migrationpolicy.org/article/all-eyes-us-federal-courts-deferred-action-programs-halted).

Fourth, from a historical perspective, we learned not to overestimate the president’s capacity to have an impact on the performance of its party, especially in the case of a president in his last term, without any chance to be re-elected. Bruce Caswell reminds us in “The Presidency, The Vote and The Formation of New Coalitions” (Polity 41, 2009) that only Ronald Reagan managed to pass the presidency along to his successor from his party and only for one term. He also points out that Obama increased evenly the support of Hispanics and other minorities in past elections but he did not bring new groups to the traditional electoral coalition of Democrats. Thus, the next presidential elections will be crucial to assess if Latinos (especially, the younger generation) have really become incorporated in the Democrats’ electoral coalition on more integrated and permanent basis than in the past.

Thus far, re-gaining initiative capacity and projecting a positive message focused on economic recovery as Obama did in his last speech to Congress in January 2015, attest of the president’s strategic shift and might increase the electoral chances of his party. It is not clear yet how presidential bold moves articulate with a broader economic and political dynamic and to what extent institutional vetoes may be overcome. For most migrants of Hispanic origin, the trip “to the North” is embedded in deeply-rooted expectations of a better standard of life and improvement for individuals, families, and communities. But the conditions that may allow them to “reclaim the American dream” –as Obama called it in his book The Audicity of Hope—are largely beyond the control of the president.

In sum, we note that forging a governing coalition that might advance a “Latin agenda” as well as other innovative policies is a crucial challenge today –and probably the most uncertain aspect of Obama’s departure. The imprint that Obama is giving to his last term will probably raise his profile and mark his legacy. It might also have just a short-term effect and limited scope if other political actors do not endorse or negotiate his initiatives within a broad political agreement supportive of structural changes.

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