Archive for Monday, January 14, 2008

Immigration not shifting votes

January 14, 2008

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Here are the three things that I found most interesting about Tuesday's New Hampshire primary in which Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton and Republican Sen. John McCain won upset victories that threw the 2008 presidential race into uncharted territory:

l First, the anti-immigration card didn't work in New Hampshire. Contrary to expectations, McCain won despite virulent attacks by fellow Republican hopeful Mitt Romney and others that he was being too soft on the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

According to exit polls, immigration was not among the three most important issues for Democrats, and was tied for third place among Republicans.

"McCain's victory is good news for those of us who support a comprehensive immigration reform," says Democratic Party pollster Sergio Bendixen. "His campaign couldn't be destroyed by those who claimed he was not being aggressive enough on immigration."

McCain had been a leading sponsor of a 2007 comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have both increased border security and provided an earned path to legalization to millions of undocumented foreign workers. Romney, Mike Huckabee and other Republican contenders said that the proposal amounted to an "amnesty," and are calling - some more explicitly than others - for the massive deportation or induced departure of all undocumented immigrants.

Granted, McCain benefited from New Hampshire's electoral rules, which allow independents to vote in either party's primary. Still, independents - whose votes will be critical in the presidential race - were not lured by anti-immigration fear mongers.

"The anti-immigrant dog barks, but it doesn't bite," says Frank Sharry, head of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington D.C. group that supports middle-of-the-road immigration reforms. "Romney has invested millions of dollars to become the hero of the anti-immigrant forces, but that hasn't translated into votes in Iowa nor in New Hampshire."

Pollsters predict that immigration will remain an important campaign issue, especially in congressional elections. But there are growing doubts on whether it will be a defining issue in the presidential race.

"What New Hampshire proved is that good candidates who run on other issues and do not demagogue on immigration can win," says pollster John Zogby, of Zogby International.

l Second, the New Hampshire results will increase the overall importance of the Hispanic vote in the 2008 elections, especially among Democrats.

Without a clear winner in Iowa and New Hampshire - which have very small Hispanic populations - Hispanics will play a larger role as the race moves to Nevada, Florida and other states where Hispanics account for more than 10 percent of the voters.

And if the race is still wide open by Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, Hispanics may become the key factor in deciding its outcome. Among participating states will be California, with nearly 20 percent Hispanic voters; New Mexico, with 36 percent Hispanic voters, and Arizona, with 12 percent Hispanic voters.

l Third, Clinton's win on Tuesday was vital for her campaign, but hardly a memorable performance. Watching Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama making their respective speeches at the end of the night, it looked like Obama had won and Clinton had been the runner-up.

While Obama improvised a Martin Luther King-like speech that energized his supporters by building on the theme that "something is happening in America," Clinton read a carefully drafted speech in which she said she was starting a new phase of the campaign in which she would speak from the heart.

Obama will remain a formidable opponent in weeks to come, as sympathizers of third-placed anti-free-trade candidate John Edwards may move to the Clinton or Obama camps.

My conclusion: The New Hampshire primary represented a victory for candidates with across-the-board political appeal, such as McCain, Clinton and in a way Obama, and a crushing defeat for real or campaign-season demagogues, including Romney and Edwards.

Hopefully, as the race moves on from nearly all-white states to the more diverse South and West, candidates who embraced the anti-Hispanic immigration cause will realize that it may cause them more harm than good.

So far, the anti-immigration constituency has made a lot of noise but has not delivered the vote.

- Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.

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