ELECTIONATE APRIL 23, 2013
The next few months could determine the fate of 11 million undocumented immigrants, so, naturally, the question is how those undocumented immigrants would vote. Today, Politico's lead story attempts to explain how immigration reform could be a “bonanza” for Democrats, since today’s undocumented workers could swing states like Texas or Arizona in the 2028 election. While it's worth considering the electoral consequences of immigration reform, Politico’s effort is worse than no effort at all.
The back-of-the-envelope calculation, described as a Politico “analysis,” assumes that each and every one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants will become citizens and vote for the Democratic candidate by a 71-27 margin—the margin by which Hispanics broke for Obama in 2012. The reporter then adds those votes on top of the 2012 election results, expanding Obama’s 4-point victory into a 7-point landslide. In effect, this “analysis” assumes that every undocumented worker will become a citizen, and that every new citizen will vote in the 2028 election.
This is ludicrous. Only 50 percent of eligible Hispanic voters and 59 percent of all eligible voters turned out in the 2012 election, and there’s little reason to think that newly documented immigrants will participate at unprecedented levels. If anything, there’s reason to believe to believe that they would participate at lower rates, since they would need to get registered and then vote for the first time.
Not all undocumented workers will become citizens, either. Politico concedes as much, noting that “there is no way of knowing” how many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants would gain citizenship. There isn’t a reliable estimate of this, but a recent Latino Decisions survey found that 87 percent of them want to become citizens and 85 percent have family members in the United States. Assuming 85 percent instead of 100 percent would have been far more reasonable, especially since Politico assumes that all 11 million of them will still be alive in 2028.
Finally, the article doesn’t account for population growth. Between now and 2028, when undocumented immigrants would be eligible to participate in a presidential election, the population of the U.S. is projected to grow by 19 percent. If the electorate grows at a similar pace, then a few million new Democratic-leaning voters will be less significant in 2028 than they would be in 2012.
As a result of these three oversights, Politico exaggerates the contribution of new citizens to the Democratic share of the two-party vote by at least two- or threefold. While the Politico analysis gives Democrats an additional 8 million voters, the actual number probably wouldn't exceed 3.5 million, with Republicans gaining 1.4 million new voters of their own. Newly legal immigrants would only add 0.6 percentage points to the Democratic nominee’s share of the vote in 2028, or increase the margin of victory by 1.3 points. In Texas, where legalizing undocumented immigrants will improve Democratic performance the most, Romney’s big victory last year would have shrunk by only 4 points. Even in states with large Hispanic populations, like Florida or Colorado, Democrats would only gain about .5 percentage points.
This is a far cry from Politico’s doomsday scenario of a toss-up in Texas and Arizona. In some respects, this assessment remains friendly toward Democrats, since it assumes that Democrats continue to win Latino voters by a 50-point margin and assumes that new citizens turnout at the current rate of all Hispanic voters. Undocumented immigrants won’t be able to vote for more than a decade, giving Republicans plenty of time to improve their standing in Hispanic communities. And the danger of comprehensive immigration reform is dwarfed by the possibility that increasing Latino turnout rates and demographic changes could combine to double the Hispanic share of the electorate over the same time period. If Republicans don’t make inroads among Latino voters, that would do far more damage to Republican fortunes than the amount forecast by Politico.
Politico does caution that its analysis is “not meant to be specifically predictive,” since “there is no way of knowing” how many undocumented immigrants might become citizens or turnout in future presidential elections. Instead, it’s merely “intended to reflect the GOP’s broader dilemma.” Politico is right that "there is no way of knowing," but the difficulty of making reasonable assumptions is not an excuse for accepting demonstrably false assumptions—like the preposterous notion that every undocumented voter will participate in a future election. That doesn’t help illustrate "the GOP’s broader dilemma"; it exaggerates and mischaracterizes it.