There is an art to political stagecraft, a sort of medium-is-the-message thing, which explains why President Barack Obama will be in Las Vegas on Tuesday to launch his effort to overhaul the nation’s confounded immigration system.
For generations, the West was a Republican stronghold, the land of Goldwater and Reagan and sagebrush rebels. But a change began under President Bill Clinton and was hastened under Obama, who twice added Nevada and Colorado to the Democrats’ stable of support in the West.
The reason, in short, is Latino voters.
The rise of Latino power, which began in California as a backlash to the heated rhetoric surrounding Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-illegal-immigration initiative, has steadily spread eastward, giving once-red states a distinctly more blue tinge.
There may be no better illustration than California’s next-door neighbor.
Obama won Nevada in 2008 by a whopping 12 percentage points. By all rights, however, Republican Mitt Romney should have been strongly competitive there in 2012. He had an organizational base among the state’s large Mormon population, and Nevada has been an economic basket case for years, with jobless, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates that set a national standard for awfulness.
Obama easily carried the state, however, winning in November by more than 6 percentage points.
Strong Latino support is one reason. What happened in Nevada reflected the results nationwide: The percentage of Latino voters grew to 18 percent of the electorate, from 15 percent in 2008, and Obama won their support by a crushingly large margin.
Immigration has become the Democrats’ wedge issue, drawing small-business-owning and culturally conservative Latinos away from the GOP in the way Republicans long used abortion and other contentious social issues to pry working-class Democrats away from their party moorings.
As an added political benefit to Democrats, the issue of illegal immigration splits the GOP between enforcement-only hard-liners and advocates of a more balanced approach that would mix fortified borders with some path to citizenship for the millions of immigrants in the United States illegally. To hard-liners, that amounts to amnesty for lawbreakers and an unacceptable capitulation to Obama and his fellow Democrats.
The president used last week’s inaugural address to signal that immigration reform, one of the unfulfilled promises of his first term, would no longer be overlooked.
America’s journey “is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity,” he said to strong applause from the hundreds of thousands gathered on the National Mall.
Latinos in Congress who met with Obama on Friday said the president described the issue as his top legislative priority.
Obama’s remarks in Las Vegas are likely to cover proposals he has called for in the past: tougher border security, a crackdown on employers who hire illegal workers and a way for undocumented immigrants to responsibly “earn” their way to U.S. citizenship. More details are expected in the president’s State of the Union address on Feb. 12.
The political message on Tuesday, however, may be more significant than the substance.
The goal for Democrats is to lock in their strong Latino support and the votes of succeeding generations, the way the party has in California, so candidates can devote more time and resources to red states such as Arizona and Texas that should, the demographics suggest, grow more competitive in 2016 and beyond.
Obama may have run his last election campaign. But one thing he would like to bequeath to fellow Democrats is a solid Electoral College base rooted in the West to offset the advantage Republicans enjoy across the South.
Tuesday’s Las Vegas appearance is a step toward that second-term goal.