Rethinking the Hispanic Vote

Mitt Romney was mocked for calling on illegal immigrants to self-deport at a debate last year, but a new Pew Hispanic Center study shows that's exactly what many Mexican immigrants have been doing on their own, with as many leaving the United States than coming in, between 2005-2010.  The report will have a seismic impact on our country's political debate, including this year's presidential election.

For Democrats, the expected long-term explosion of Latino voters may not end up materializing.  While there was a significant spike in the Hispanic population at the first half of the last decade, the economic recession and tighter immigration crackdowns have slowed that to a trickle.  It's not a given that Hispanic voters will make a larger share of the electorate than in 2008, as many in the Obama campaign had presumed (and depended upon). Already Democrats are facing challenges registering Hispanic voters in battleground states, like Arizona.

For Republicans, the illegal immigration litmus test, forcing conservative candidates to toe a hardline on the issue, could very well recede in the near future.  A January Pew poll showed the number of Republicans considering illegal immigration as a top issue has plummeted, dropping from 69 percent in 2007 to 48 percent at the beginning of this year.  The future Republican positioning on immigration could very well be closer to the policy views of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio  than that of hardliners like Iowa Rep. Steve King.

The long-term political implications are equally significant.  Democrats have counted Hispanics as a pivotal part of their coalition, but there's no guarantee that as first-generation immigrants assimilate, they will remain reliable partisan voters.   Indeed, a complementary Pew Hispanic Center study, released last month, showed immigrants becoming more Republican the longer they've been in this country -- a similar narrative to other first-generation ethnic groups.

All this goes to show that the Hispanic vote will still be very important, but perhaps not in the ways pundits have been anticipating.