Obama's Latino Strategy Takes Shape

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JONATHAN CHAIT MAY 12, 2011

Obama's Latino Strategy Takes Shape

Here are three stories that don't make a ton of sense individually, but make a great deal of sense taken together. First, the Obama reelection campaign is claiming it's going to compete hard in Texas, reports Glenn Thrush:

President Barack Obama’s campaign is heeding the political siren song of Texas, telling supporters he hopes to make a real effort in a state where the growing Hispanic electorate has long raised — then dashed — Democratic hopes.

Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, speaking to big-money Lone Star State Democrats at closed-door meetings in Austin and Dallas in March, predicted Obama could make a “serious play” in the cornerstone of GOP presidential politics, according to people in attendance.

And Obama’s senior adviser David Plouffe has told fellow Democrats the nation’s second most populous state might add to his national “map” of contested states, arguing that the huge increase in voting-eligible Hispanic Texans in recent years could bring the state into play sooner than expected.

Meanwhile, Obama and Senate Democrats are making a public push on immigration reform:

I’d say the most important event in immigration politics in the last 24 hours wasn’t Obama’s speech, but Harry Reid’s decision to reintroduce the DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act applies to undocumented immigrants who a) were brought here before turning 16, b) are between 12 and 30, and c) complete two years of college or military service as a path to citizenship. There’s no more sympathetic group in the immigration debate then children who were brought here illegally through no fault of their own, and there’s no more obvious group to help than those who get degrees in our universities or serve in our military. And the DREAM Act has demonstrated its congressional appeal: The bill almost passed in December 2010. There’s not much reason to believe it could pass in 2011, either, but it could get enough votes in the Senate to force Republicans to kill it themselves, and it’s a bill that the Obama administration could, if they put real effort into it over the next few years, plausibly push over the finish line.

The DREAM Act is sort of a piecemeal version of comprehensive immigration reform.

And third, Democrats have recruited General Ricardo Sanchez to run for Senate in Texas:

A new 10-gallon hat is in the ring: Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, retired, officially began his bid for an open Senate seat in Texas on Wednesday by filing election paperwork in San Antonio.

Democrats are, politely put, long shots in state-wide races in Texas, but Mr. Sanchez and his party no doubt hope that his military service and name recognition would help him against any Republican contender for the seat held by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican who announced in January that she would not seek a sixth term.

This looks to me like different pieces of the same strategy. Here's my read of it. In the narrow analysis, Texas is a deeply Republican state. Obama lost it by a dozen points in 2008. It can't possibly help him win in 2012. If he does win the state, which could conceivably happen only in some kind of blowout scenario, he'd easily have enough electoral votes elsewhere to win.

However, there is long-term potential in Texas. The Latino population there is as large a proportion as in California, but it's heavily demobilized. A concerted campaign to register Latino voters could eventually change the dynamic. The catch is that you have to be willing to spend $20 million or so in order to register them -- a huge investment that is hard to justify short term. But Obama might have enough money in 2012 to spare for a long-term investment. And a high-profile Latino Senate candidate like Sanchez could lure a lot of previously unregistered Latinos. The only way to make this work is to create an energizing atmosphere for Latinos.

What's more, Obama does need to mobilize the Latino vote in general, especially in states like Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida. That's where the immigration push comes in. Obama failed to pass immigration legislation because a coalition of Republicans and red state Democrats killed it. Because the bills never had a high profile vote, though, it looked a lot like Obama simply didn't care. That's why Democrats are making a high profile push now. Obviously, passing something is the best case scenario. But if Republicans want to kill comprehensive reform or even the very modest DREAM Act, the point is to make them do it in a high profile setting that clarifies just who killed it. That kind of clarification is necessary to make the mass mobilization they're planning in Texas effective. You can't carry out a mass registration campaign in an atmosphere where the stakes are perceived to be low.

And since Texas is such a vital center of the Latino community, a large scale effort to register Latinos, plus the Sanchez candidacy, would reverberate nationwide, as Thrush reports:

[M]aking a respectable effort in Texas offers benefits far beyond actually winning the state’s 38 electoral votes... it also sends a signal to Hispanics in neighboring states that Obama, despite a spotty record on immigration reform, is willing to expend resources on them without a guarantee of victory.

“It’s the Univision effect,” one Democrat said, referring to the Spanish-language TV station that is a pan-Hispanic news staple throughout the country.

So the plan is to make the long-term investment in registering Hispanics in Texas, hastening the state's eventual turn to purple, while maaaybe getting a competitive Senate race (Sanchez is a general running on a centrist message) and helping mobilize Latino voters in true swing states. Add it all together, and three decisions that make little or no sense on their own suddenly make a great deal of sense.

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posted in: jonathan chait, austin, dallas, barack obama, david plouffe, glenn thrush, harry reid, jim messina, ricardo sanchez, republican party, senate, texas

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