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Poll: Republicans pushing immigration reform could score with Latinos in 2016

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Charles Dharapak/AP

(Read caption) Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida speaks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition 'Road to Majority' conference in Washington, June 13. Republicans advocating comprehensive immigration reform – Sen. Rubio, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin – are well positioned to win White House elections in 2016 over some of the Latino voters who backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

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Republicans eyeing the 2016 White House contest could find some useful pointers in a new survey of Latino voters.

Those advocating comprehensive immigration reform – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin – are well positioned to win over some of the Latino voters who backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, according to the poll, which was sponsored by Latino Decisions on behalf of America’s Voice.

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But that support probably comes into play only if a bill makes it to Mr. Obama’s desk and he signs off.

“Republicans will not get any credit for getting a bill through half of the Congress,” writes Matt Barreto, founding principal of Latino Decisions and an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, Seattle. “Latino voters expect to see the GOP successfully move immigration reform and send a true compromise bill to the President.”

Half of survey respondents were asked if they would back Senator Rubio after hearing this prompt:

“Currently the U.S. Congress is debating a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States. Republican Marco Rubio played a key role in helping to pass this bill and with Rubio’s leadership undocumented immigrants receive legal status and a path to citizenship.”

When the respondents were then asked how likely they would be to back Rubio in the 2016 presidential election, 54 percent of Latino voters said they were likely to vote for him, including half of those who supported Obama in 2012. Without the prompt, however, Rubio failed to reach the 30 percent threshold.

After a prompt stating Mr. Bush’s support for a bill with a path to citizenship, 47 percent of those surveyed said they were likely to vote for him, including 42 percent of those who cast ballots for Obama during his reelection bid.

Pollsters also suggested to those surveyed that Representative Ryan, his party’s 2012 vice-presidential candidate, has become an outspoken supporter of immigration reform efforts and could be positioned to help move such legislation (with a path to citizenship) through the House. They then asked what effect that information would have on the respondents’ votes in the next presidential cycle: Forty-four percent said they would be likely to vote for him, including 40 percent of Obama voters.

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More than 11 million Latino voters cast ballots in 2012, and that number is expected to increase to more than 12.5 million in 2016, according to Latino Decisions. In both 2008 and 2012, Obama’s strength with this demographic helped him carry crucial swing states owned by President Bush in 2004: New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Florida, and Virginia.

In 2004, Mr. Bush snared approximately 40 percent of the Latino vote. By contrast, Obama bested his 2012 Republican foe, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, by winning support from more than 70 percent of Latino voters.

Mr. Barreto of Latino Decisions suggests there’s hope for the GOP – that the party could loosen the Democrats’ grip on this voting population if they pick an immigration reform-friendly nominee in 2016.

“The polling data today suggests Rubio, most of all, but Jeb Bush and Paul Ryan as well, can equal or eclipse the 40 percent mark among Latinos if they provide leadership on immigration reform to get a bill signed into law,” he writes. “However they remain far from the 40 percent mark right now.”

While the poll has some potentially good news for proponents of immigration reform, it doesn’t address how the candidates should sell their positions to a Republican primary electorate – a must before any one of them can emerge as the eventual nominee. Voters in early states like Iowa and South Carolina, in particular, tend to be more socially conservative, and immigration reform might be a tough sell there.

So for their part, too, Republican primary voters might want to tune in to the state of affairs reflected in this latest survey. The nation’s demographics are changing, and with it the realities for how politicians – and which ones – win White House elections.