By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News
Anyone following the 2012 presidential campaign that’s been underway for what seems like years already will know that everyone agrees the economy will be the determining issue.
Not so fast.
It is far and away the issue of broadest concern to voters in generic opinion polls, but a popular vote doesn’t determine who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In a handful of swing states that will decide the election, immigration will play a large — perhaps even determining — role in whether Barack Obama gets another four years. With events that have transpired during his term and continuing population shifts, it offers hope to Obama’s supporters that he can win enough states on that issue alone to tip the election.
In 2008, Obama won the Hispanic vote by a two-to-one margin, 67 percent to John McCain’s 31 percent. Obama carried three swing states with significant Latino populations: Florida, Nevada and New Mexico, worth a combined 37 electoral votes. A fourth Latino-heavy state, McCain’s home state Arizona, was not really in play. McCain lost the Arizona Hispanic vote, but not by very much and he likely over-performed with Arizona’s Latino population due to what was then considered his moderate position on illegal immigration.
McCain won Arizona, the second-largest prize in Hispanic-relevant swing states (worth 10 electoral votes in 2008; 11 in 2012), by a margin of 56 percent to 46 percent. But with a huge increase in the number of eligible Latinos in the state over the last four years, if Obama’s percentage of Latino support is even duplicated in 2012, the McCain victory would have been just 51 percent to 49 percent.
It’s worth pausing to reflect on that reality. The Republican nominee in 2008 would have been in a dog fight in his home state — considered a reliably red one over the last 40 years — thanks solely to the combination of an influx of Latino voters and the GOP’s harsh immigration stance.
Take McCain’s Arizona clout off the ballot and substitute 2012 front-runner Mitt Romney, who has led the pack in calling for strict immigration laws that do not include a path to citizenship for illegals — add in the demographic change — and all of a sudden Arizona is a new swing state.
If Obama can expand the electoral map to include Arizona it makes New Mexico and Nevada must-win states for the Republican nominee.
Another cause for optimism for Obama: Turnout for Latinos in Arizona is likely to be quite high. The state’s much-derided illegal immigration law, which enables police to demand ID from any person suspected of being illegal (read: any Latino), has energized the state’s Latino voters. Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer — hardly a popular figure among Latinos after signing the immigration law — did the president yet another favor last week when pictures surfaced of her shoving a finger in Obama’s face as he stepped off Air Force One.
It isn’t all rosy for the president, though. Nevada, home to the nation’s highest unemployment rate, looks to be a tough place for him to campaign and is a prime candidate for a flip from his 2008 electoral map. Other blue states (North Carolina and Indiana) in 2008 will be difficult to hold, making the 2012 contest much closer.
How crucial could the Latino vote in Arizona be in the 2012 contest? Even if Obama loses five states he carried in 2012 — Indiana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada — if he wins Arizona and New Mexico, he still wins the election by a count of 291 to 247.
Expect to read a lot more about the Grand Canyon State between now and November.