What If Undocumented Immigrants Had Voted in 2012?

After immigration overhaul, a new electorate could change national campaigns.

ByABC News
January 30, 2013, 2:25 PM

Jan. 31, 2013 -- If every undocumented immigrant had cast a vote for President Obama in 2012, he would have won Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, and he would have beaten Mitt Romney by nearly 11 percentage points nationally, instead of three.

Only citizens can vote, however, and 11.2 million unauthorized residents didn't get the chance.

But with immigration overhaul on the table, legalizing new Democratic voters looms as a threat for conservatives who don't want to hand their political foes a potential windfall of 11.2 million new voters with the creation of a pathway to citizenship -- and to voting rights -- with a comprehensive bill.

"The fear that many people have is that the Democrats aren't interested in border security, that they want this influx," Rush Limbaugh griped during his Tuesday interview with overhaul champion Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. "For example, if 70 percent of the Hispanic vote went Republican, do you think the Democrats would be for any part of this legislation?"

New immigration policies could mean in influx of new voters, but Republicans needn't worry about it in the short term.See Also: Gang of Eight Accelerates Immigration Reform Pace

"Under almost any scenario, it's pretty far in the distance," Jeff Passell, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, said of the prospect that unauthorized immigrants' gaining voting rights would pump up numbers significantly enough to meaningfully change the U.S. electorate.

And yet, the "influx" wouldn't be negligible: "Realistically, we're talking about potentially adding probably 5 million potential voters or so in 10 years," he said.

Hispanic voters broke 71 percent for Obama in November, and Republican strategists recognize that the party has failed to court Hispanic voters effectively. But depending on how slowly the citizenship line moves, the Republican Party will have a decade or so to shake its anti-Hispanic stigma.

See also: A Glossary for Immigration Reform

"It's a long time coming. You're talking about 15 to 20 years before we're talking about a whole slew of new voters coming into the electorate," said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, who served as Hispanic outreach director for George W. Bush's presidential campaign.

"If Republicans can map out and change their positions with things that Hispanics do support -- on less government, lower taxes, less regulations on small businesses -- then they can really compete for the Hispanic vote over the next 20, 30 years."

There are 11.2 unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center's estimate. While most are of voting age (Pew estimates just 1 million younger than 18), the deluge of new Democratic voters might not be as substantial as Limbaugh implied.

In other words, it's not as if Democrats will gain 11.2 million votes in the next few years. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Not All Hispanics Vote for Democrats. Most do, but not all, and voter preferences vary from state to state. In Florida, 60 percent of Hispanic voters backed Obama, according to 2012 exit polls; in Arizona, 74 percent voted for the president. Even if all 11.2 million had voted in 2012, Obama would only have picked up North Carolina if they simply hewed to Hispanic voter trends. Romney still would have carried Arizona, Georgia and Texas, although he would have won Georgia by less than 1 percentage point. (Note: There were no exit polls in Texas or Georgia, and here the national rate provides rough estimates of how results would have changed.)