Will Obama's Immigration Gambit Doom Him in the Rust Belt?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 27 2012 3:31 PM

Will Obama's Immigration Gambit Doom Him in the Rust Belt?

When Barack Obama announced his executive order ending deportation for the children of illegal immigrants two weeks ago, most observers (myself included) honed in on how it would boost his already-high support from Latinos in swing states like Florida and Nevada, helping to compensate for the massive number of deportations that have taken place under his White House and a failure to act on immigration reform generally.

But Republicans have been insisting all along that the move won't come without a price. And new survey data from Quinnipiac in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the two largest electoral college prizes up for grabs in the Midwest, have inspired a fresh round of debate: will blue-collar white voters be alienated by Obama's move?

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Greg Sargent writes that the new surveys, which find healthy majorities of independents in both states favor the Obama position, show there's little for Dems to worry about:

The toplines of today’s Quinnipiac polls show Obama leading in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. But dig deeper into the crosstabs and you find:

* In Florida, non-college whites support the policy, 45-44, and 59 percent of them say it will make no difference in their vote. Florida independents support the policy, 62-30.

* In Ohio, non-college whites tilt against the policy, but only by a slim margin, 47-43, and 55 percent of them say it will make no difference in their vote. Ohio independents support the policy, 54-39.

* In Pennsylvania, the margin among blue collar whites against the policy is a bit higher, at 48-43, but even here, 56 percent of them say it will make no difference to their vote. Pennsylvnia independents support the policy, 51-41.

As GOP strategist Ed Rollins suggested the other day, voters who are not ideologically unwilling to contemplate finding a way to grant legal status to illegal immigrants view the DREAM issue as one of fundamental fairness; many people know illegal immigrants and see them as just vying for their piece of the American Dream. If the above numbers are an accurate representation of public opinion, it’s hard to see this move as anything but a political winner for Obama. The clear support for Obama’s move among swing state independents also may help explain why Mitt Romney keeps equivocating on the policy and refusing to say whether he’d repeal it.

Aaron Blake takes a contrary stance, highlighting the fact that even if majorities are on board with the new policy, when it comes to mobilizing support, the immigration move could cost Obama at the margins:

In both Ohio and Pennsylvania, more than twice as many respondents say the decision makes them less likely to support the president (27 percent in both) as say it makes them more likely to back him (12 percent in Pennsylvania, 11 percent in Ohio).

(snip)

The numbers harken back to polling conducted after Obama’s decision to publicly support of gay marriage last month. A Gallup poll back then showed that a slim majority of Americans backed the move, but when it came to affecting their vote, 26 percent said it made them less likely to vote for Obama while just 13 percent said it made them more likely.

As with the gay marriage numbers, many who say the immigration policy makes them less likely to vote for Obama are Republicans who almost certainly weren’t going to vote for him anyway. But the move also appears to be turning off significant swaths of independents.

In Ohio, 26 percent of independents say they are now less likely to support Obama, while just 10 percent say they are more likely to back him. In Pennsylvania, the split is 32 percent less likely and 10 percent more likely. In Florida, the split among independents is 22 percent less likely and 14 percent more likely.

This brings us back to the central challenge for Romney in this campaign: achieving record support from white voters, whether because of their economic frustration, or cultural resentment towards Obama's rainbow coalition of young, gay, black, and Hispanic voters.

How Republicans engage those white voters miffed at the immigration move -- whether on rural radio stations in southeast Ohio or on television in major media markets like Philadelphia -- will be key, as Romney cannot afford to be seen by suburban moderates as demagoguing the issue.

Then again, perhaps focusing on Midwest states like these is besides the point. The Obama re-election team must have been well aware of the risk they were taking with the immigration move, and in that sense it can be read as a doubling-down on the Southwest (Nevada and Colorado) and New South (Virginia and North Carolina) at the expense of the Democratic Party's already-waning strength in the Rust Belt.

Matt Taylor is a reporter living in Brooklyn. He was the political correspondent for the National Memo and a staff reporter at his hometown newspaper, The East Hampton Star. He's a contributor to Newsweek/The Daily Beast. You can reach him on Twitter @matthewt_ny