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Poll: Az elections will turn on immigration reform

With the Hispanic population in Arizona booming, a report from a lobbying group said that the future of the Republican party in the state hinges on the passage of immigration reform.

Hispanic voter engagement has not kept pace with the growth of the Latino population, but that is poised to change and political parties need to be ready to take advantage, the report released Tuesday by America’s Voice and Latino Decisions.

While the state’s growing Hispanic electorate could help Democrats solidify recent gains, those voters would also be willing to back Republicans, who stand to gain more in Arizona than in other states, the report said.

Latino Decisions, a public opinion research company that focuses on the political opinions of Latinos, analyzed a poll conducted in 2012 during the presidential election and compared that to demographics from the U.S. Census and other sources. Immigration-reform lobbying group America's Voice commissioned the study.

The groups presented their findings during a Tuesday conference call and webcast to reporters and members of political action groups in Arizona. 

"This is a demographic story," Gabriel Sanchez, director of research at Latino Decisions, said during the call. "The politics are beginning to change as Latinos vote." 

The demographic shift isn't from migration, but rather from a growing Latino population in the state, Sanchez said.

The report said both parties “have their work cut out for them in terms of Latino outreach” if they hope to capitalize on the trend.

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“Ignoring these findings would be a long-term strategy to become extinct,” said Sanchez.

Census statistics show non-white Hispanics are currently 30 percent of Arizona's population, but according to Sanchez, Arizona will become a majority-minority state in the next 15 years. By 2050, Latinos are estimated to become 44 percent of the total population. 

"The future of Arizona politics will be driven by Latino population growth," Sanchez said. "Latinos in Arizona are an astonishing 20 years younger than non-Hispanic whites, so the population growth among Latinos is due to the youthfulness of the Latino population, not external migration." 

During the 2012 presidential election, a huge majority of Latino voters, 79 to 20 percent, voted for President Barack Obama. While this wasn't enough to swing the state blue, the future indicates that as the Latino vote grows and becomes more mobilized, it could be enough to swing local and state elections as well as the presidential vote. 

Randy Parraz, a candidate in the 2012 Democratic Senate primary and co-founder of Citizens for a Better Arizona, a political action group that challenged SB1070 and state senator Russell Pearce, believes that with money and political pressure the state could feel the "true power of the Latino vote." 

"The idea that Arizona is a red state is a gross distortion," he said. "We’re one election away from becoming a blue state. I’m telling you, this is a huge opportunity for those groups that have money to change the election and see a return on their money in nine months." 

The report noted that SB1070 has battered the Republican party among Latino voters. 

In 2004, President George W. Bush received 44 percent of the Latino vote, but eight years later, Mitt Romney — who proposed "self-deportation" policies — garnered only 20 percent. 

Gov. Jan Brewer, who built her reputation on the controversial measure, garnered only 14 percent of the Latino vote. 

In Arizona, immigration was the top issue in 2012, just barely edging out economic concerns. Coupled with two factors: that Latino voters primarily came out to "support the Latino community" by 41 percent, and that 65 percent knew someone who was undocumented, immigration may remain a key issue that decides future elections against the Republicans. 

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The survey of 5,600 voters in 11 states, taken on the eve of Election Day 2012, found that 41 percent of those polled in Arizona said they would cast votes they felt supported the Latino community, with 39 percent voting to support Democrats. Just 12 percent would vote to support Republicans.

Sanchez said Republican rhetoric on immigration reform and law like SB 1070 made Hispanics apprehensive about the GOP. But the report also said that 38 percent of Latinos in Arizona said they would be willing to vote Republican if the party backed comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship – more than in any other state.

Latinos are “not guaranteed monolithic Democratic voters,” Sanchez said.

If reform fails because of Republican intrasigence, many of those polled would become less likely to vote for the GOP in the future. 

"Now more than ever we need to invest in a multimillion dollar strategy that focuses exclusively on educating, registering and mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Latino voters in Arizona," said Parraz. 

Without this kind of mobilization, "extremists" drive the political agenda of the state, said Parraz. "Fortunately we have the numbers to make a difference if we make the investment now of time, money and people." 

Getting voters to the polls will remain a major task. According to the report, only 20 percent of Latino voters are registered to vote, and only 40 percent of those who are eligible and registered voted in 2012. 

This leaves 589,000 votes on the table for either party to grab. 

According to Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona, a political action group, there has to be a concerted effort to "educate voters." 

"This has been a critical time for Arizona," she said. "The state has been in the limelight for a lot of bad policies and actors." 

"Closing the gap on voter engagement really hinges on voter registration," Sanchez said. "And the gap between whites and Latinos is tighter when we focus on those who are registered to vote versus those who are not, so it’s just a question about how to galvanize those who are registered." 

And, while Arizona is historically considered a lock for Republican presidential candidates, the shifting demographic will make this increasingly difficult. As the group's interactive map shows, a larger Latino voting bloc could have taken Arizona from a Republican stronghold to a virtual tie during the 2012 election. 

While the next election may fall toward Republican candidates, Sanchez said the party won't have a chance in the future without courting the Latino vote.

"If you look at projections, the immediate short-term reaction might be this horizon doesn’t happen for three or four elections cycles," said Sanchez. "But, these numbers are being driven by people who are in the country."

Arizona Republican Party spokesman Tim Sifert said the party welcomes everyone and strongly encourages all eligible voters to participate in elections. He notes that Republican candidates include men and women from “every walk of life, every race and creed.”

But he said the effect of changing demographics on state elections, while cited often, is “only part of the story.”

“Political reality reflects the actual choices voters make,” Sifert said in an email. “No two elections are alike, especially considering the effects of redistricting, which appeared to be ignored in this report.”

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Arizona Democratic Party spokesman DJ Quinlan said immigration is not the only issue important to Latino voters, but added that Democrats are still better positioned than Republicans to capitalize on the demographic shift.

“We know that immigration reform is not just one issue but a key to several,” including better jobs and better education, Quinlan said. “Republicans will soon find this issue is a disqualifier for them unless something changes.”

He noted that 60 percent of Arizonans under age 18 are non-white and that Democrats will likely continue their success in courting young voters of color.

But Jennifer Cyr, an assistant professor of political science and Latin American studies at the University of Arizona's School of Government and Public Policy, said having ideological kinship with Hispanics is only part of the battle – they have to be motivated to vote, as well.

“The state could viably become solidly blue,” Cyr said in an email. “The Democrats’ challenge moving forward, however, is to make sure that the Latino population in the state actually turns out to vote on Election Day.”

She said Republicans cannot be counted out in Arizona, pointing to the large number of Hispanics who are Catholic, for example.

“There may be some opportunity for Arizona Republicans to appeal to the socially conservative values that typically underpin the Catholic vote,” she wrote, but added that generational differences on issues like same-sex marriage could cut support for socially conservative platforms.

Bill Hart, senior policy analyst for the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, was “not surprised Arizona has slightly higher Republican traction with Hispanics.”

“The Republicans have had a good lock on this state since the ’80s,” Hart said.

While fights over SB 1070 and immigration reform may have hurt Republicans, he believes the party still has a chance to reach out to Latinos. He brushed off the suggestion that Republicans could be in trouble in Arizona.

“To predict that the Republicans could go extinct in Arizona or anywhere else in the near future seems to be stretching it a bit,” Hart said. “The Republicans have been around since the days of Lincoln for a reason.”

Raquel Teran, state director of Mi Familia Vota, said on Tueday’s conference call that she just hopes the report sends the message to lawmakers on the state and federal levels that “the Latino community is too important to ignore.”

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Cronkite News Service reporter Colton Gavin contributed to this report.

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Latino Decisions

Hispanics are expected to become a steadily more important voting group in coming years. But experts say political parties will not only have to reach out to those voters, but will have to get them to the polls, which they have not traditionally done in large numbers.