Poll: Immigration tops jobs as number one issue for Latino voters

Paul Conner Executive Editor
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Immigration has surpassed jobs to become the number one issue concerning Latino voters, according to a poll by leading non-profit Latino organization.

Surprisingly, immigration was not the top issue for Hispanic voters at the outset of the Obama administration, according to a similar poll by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center released in January 2009. In that poll, the economy was far and away the leading issue concerning Hispanics, with twice as many responding that it was “extremely important” as responded that way to immigration.

But the mood among Latino voters has shifted markedly since then, largely due to the Arizona immigration law, which goes into effect next week.

A poll released Tuesday by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund shows that immigration is the top issue for Latino voters in California, Colorado, Florida and Texas.

27 percent of those surveyed cited immigration as the most important issue in deciding whom to vote for in the November midterm elections. Unemployment followed with 15 percent, and 14 percent chose not to pick an issue.

“What is so striking to me in my many years of looking at polling, is that this is the first time that immigration is the number one issue among Latino voters,” said María Cardona, a Democratic strategist. “That, to me, was just stunning.

Despite strong words of intent from the administration and some congressional Democrats about passing a federal immigration bill, Congress appears to have other more pressing priorities. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told POLITICO that he hopes to begin debate on an energy bill next week, leaving little time before the August recess to get anything substantial done on immigration.

“Democrats would rather have this as a political issue in November rather than a legislative issue right now,” said Leslie Sánchez, former spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “I think the most positive aspects of immigration reform, bipartisan reform, will happen in 2011.”

The potential that Democrats would use the lame duck session after the midterm elections to pass an immigration bill seems unlikely, and immigration activists are already bracing for the reality that they likely will not have a bill in 2010.

According to the poll, Latino voters give Congress higher marks than the majority of American citizens, with just under 41 percent approving of the job Congress is doing. 65 percent approve of President Obama.

“We are frustrated with Congress, as all Americans are frustrated with Congress,” Sánchez said. “In that sense, we are not special. We are very mainstream, we are American.”

If no bill is passed in 2010, experts expect the issue to escalate – not fade away – in 2011.

“If it doesn’t happen in 2010, I think it will absolutely escalate in 2011,” Cardona said.

The poll surveyed 1,600 Latino registered voters in California, Colorado, Florida and Texas, states that contain 60 percent of the Latino population in the United States.

The poll also shows Senate candidates Gov. Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio in a dead heat among Latino voters in Florida.

Crist, formerly a Republican but now an independent, is tied with Rubio, a Republican, at 35 percent. Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Democratic Congressman representing Miami, gathers 17 percent. In California, the poll shows incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer with a substantial advantage over her Republican opponent Carly Fiorina among Latino voters in the state’s Senate race, 61 to 16 percent.

In the Colorado Democratic Senate primary, Latino voters favor Michael Bennet by seven points over Andrew Romanoff.

In the Texas governor’s race, incumbent Republican Rick Perry trails Democrat Bill White among Latinos 61 to 23 percent.

The poll projects that 61 percent of Latino voters – around 6 million people – will “definitely” turn out  to vote in the November midterm elections.

Although movements like the Tea Party have been formed around government spending and the federal deficit, the issue was eighth on the list of importance for Latino voters.

Some of the least important issues for Latino voters included the War on Terror, regulating Wall Street and energy.