Analysis: Latinos Buoyed By Economic Optimism Heading Into Election Day

PHOTO: now hiringMike Groll/AP Photo
A sign attracts job-seekers during an Oct. 25 job fair at the Marriott Hotel in Colonie, N.Y.

Latinos are more optimistic about their economic standing and the direction of the country heading into Election Day, according to a new study released Friday.

This sunnier attitude comes against a backdrop of a presidential campaign in which the fragile economy has loomed as the central concern for all voters. October's jobs report, also released Friday, showed slow but steady progress in the labor market. The economy added 171,000 jobs last month as the overall unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9 percent. The unemployment rate for Latinos also moved slightly upward to 10 percent.

Republicans have sought to woo Latino votes away from President Obama, pointing out that the community has been hardest hit by the recession and that the president has not done enough to fix it. But it hasn't necessarily been effective.

"He said that the unemployment rate would now be 5.2 percent; today we learned that it is 7.9 percent--it is 9 million jobs short of what he promised. Unemployment is higher today than when Barack Obama took office," said GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said during a campaign stop in Wisconsin on Friday.

Former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez echoed Romney's message in a Spanish-language press release. "We need a leader like Mitt Romney," who can help unemployed and underemployed Americans get good jobs, he said.

Republicans have made this argument for months, and on paper, it should be working. Latinos' median household wealth declined by nearly 60 percent between 2005 and 2010, according to the new study released by the Pew Hispanic Center. And since 2007, the number of Latino children living in poverty has exceeded white or black children.

But the GOP struggled mightily to make inroads among Latino voters. In fact, according to some polls, Obama is expected to win a larger share of Latino voters than he did four years ago -- when he defeated his rival John McCain by more than two-to-one – and could win the largest share of Latino voters in 16 years.

The conventional wisdom has attributed this advantage to the hard line Romney has taken on the issue of immigration. But Latinos' attitudes about the economy appear to have fueled Obama's advantage.

Over half (51 percent) of all Latino adults are satisfied with the country's direction, up 13 percentage points from last year, according to Pew. And 73 percent expect their finances to improve next year, up from two-thirds who said the same in 2010.

Pew points out that this optimism comes amid improving economic conditions. While the unemployment rate among Latinos remains sky-high at 10 percent, it's down from its high of 12.7 percent in 2009. And the poverty rate among Latinos has fallen from 26.5 percent in 2010 to 25.3 percent in 2011.

While that might seem like hardly any change at all, simply put, it's been enough for Latinos to feel better about their economic prospects. Politically, that means that the Republicans' message may not be resonating the way they would like it to.

If anything, Latinos who are less hopeful about the direction of the country and their economic standing are more likely not to vote at all than support Romney.

"There is a lot of skepticism that either presidential candidate will follow through on his promises," said Christine Márquez-Hudson, executive director of the Denver-based Mi Casa Resource Center told ABC/Univision last month.

Critics of this theory might point out that this new Pew survey is of all Latino adults, and not specifically of voters, meaning that the sample might not reflect the feeling of the electorate. Also, the Pew survey doesn't specifically say whether the increased optimism has translated into greater support for Obama.

But survey after survey has shown that Latino voters trust Obama over Romney on the economy. A separate Pew survey of registered voters released in mid-October showed that 45 percent see the nation heading in the right direction, up nine points from last year. And a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll showed that 63 percent approve of Obama's handling of the economy and believe the president is better equipped to handle the economy than Romney by a 33-percentage-point margin.

Romney's economic message has likely helped him make it a close race among all voters, but it hasn't been the case among Latinos.