CHICAGO – President Obama holds leads over the top three Republican presidential candidates in a new national poll conducted by Latino Decisions for Univision, with the president enjoying far wider advantages among Latino voters, an area of strength that could ultimately prove crucial come next year’s election.
One year before Election Day 2012, the president leads GOP front-runners Herman Cain, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry with advantages that are outside the poll’s 3.1 percent margin for error, according to the poll results released today. Among registered voters nationwide, Obama holds the largest lead over Perry at 10 percent, with his edge over Romney at 9 percent. Cain, meanwhile, is within 6 percent of the president.
Among registered Latino voters in the 21 most Latino-heavy states, Obama’s advantage is far greater, exceeding two-to-one margins in every case. The president is up 65 percent to 22 percent on Cain, 67 percent to 24 percent on Romney and 68 percent to 21 percent on Perry. That will come as welcome news to the White House as the president prepares for what is shaping up to be a difficult re-election campaign.
“There’s a lot of good news for the president in this poll,” Gary Segura, a researcher at Latino Decisions and professor of political science at Stanford University, said in a phone interview. “He polls 9 percentage points ahead of his leading rivals on the other side. His approval rating is good among Latinos ; not great but good. The national approval rating here is about what everyone else is finding, that the president is climbing back up a little from the summer. In addition, a lot of the issues favor the president’s direction, but not all.
“I think if there are things that the president could take note of is that there are some missed opportunities here,” Segura added. “The public is not nearly as anti-immigrant as the GOP electorate and he’s not making good use of that. He does not enjoy the confidence of the American people on the economy. That is a messaging fail. Same with health care reform, a messaging fail. That’s the bad news, the only negative moments in an otherwise happy poll for the president.”
Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote nationwide in 2008, propelling him to a comfortable victor over Republican Sen. John McCain. About 6.6 million Latinos voted that year. A record 12.2 million Latinos are set to vote next year, a 26 percent increase from 2008, according to projections from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund. Simply put, they are the fastest-growing voting group in the nation.
“The Latino vote is going to be much more influential in 2012 than it was in 2008 because most election forecasters agree that it’s going to be a closer election this time than last time,” said Matt Barreto, a researcher at Latino Decisions and an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington in Seattle. “If we start with the assumption that the election is going to be closer, then it means that those key subgroups of voters are going to be more influential, and not just in the obvious states like Nevada, Florida, and Colorado, but there are sizable Latino populations in states like Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“They have really fast-growing Latino populations, so we may be looking beyond the traditional states this time. If those states are close, then the president cannot afford any drop-off in Latino turnout. It holds the promise of being an election where Latinos could hold a huge amount of influence.”
As last year’s Census demonstrated, the growth of Latinos in the past decade has been explosive, coming in at 43 percent. There are now more than 50 million Latinos in this country, or nearly one in six Americans. Generally speaking, they are liberals, tending to disagree with the GOP’s stance on key issues such as the government’s role in jump-starting the economy and immigration reform efforts such as like the DREAM Act, which failed in the Senate in December in the face of staunch Republican opposition.
With the president entering an election year burdened by a sluggish economy, high disapproval ratings and an opposing party energized by victories in the 2010 midterm elections, a sizable boost from Latinos could be decisive. But to reap the benefits on Election Day, Obama will first have to earn their vote again.
Latinos are not as torn about the president as the rest of the country: 66 percent of Latinos approve of the job Obama has done, while only 29 percent disapprove. Nationwide, 50 percent of Americans disapprove of the job the president is doing, while 48 percent approve. Making matters worse for Obama, the opposition is intense. Of the 50 percent who disapprove of his work in the White House, 37 percent disapprove strongly, while the remaining 13 percent only disapprove somewhat.
The day before the Republican debate in Las Vegas last month, a Latino woman named Ana emerged from a cash-advance business on the outskirts of town, frustrated with the state of the nation’s economy. After voting for Obama last time around, she said, she will support whoever is ultimately the Republican nominee this time.
“Two years ago, I was good with one job,” she said in Spanish. “Now I’ve got two jobs and I’m still not good.”
Obama, in her opinion, has done too little to earn her vote again.
“No ha hecho nada,” she said, shaking her head. “He hasn’t done anything.”
As the president himself has acknowledged, the excitement among his supporters is no longer what it was three years ago. If that results in a steep drop-off in turnout, especially at a time when a record number of Latinos are predicted to hit the polls, Obama’s re-election chances could be damaged.
“We saw historic high levels of Latino turnout in 2008,” Barreto said. “I think the president is going to be cautious about recapturing those high levels that were there last time.”
Gabriela Domenzain, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, has repeatedly said the president believes that “our country’s success is intricately tied to Hispanic success,” warning that Hispanics “stand to lose the most from Republican policies.”
Nearly three years after inheriting an economy in the depths of a severe recession, Obama has struggled to improve the situation. As of the end of last month, the country’s jobless rate stood at 9 percent. Despite a string of foreign policy successes such as the killing of Osama bin Laden and this year’s Arab Spring, the economic doldrums could open the door for a GOP challenger to knock off Obama.
ABC News’ latest installment of the Frustration Index showed a rating of 72, on a scale of 0 to 100, one of its highest readings on record. But when it comes to Latinos, the Republican contenders – especially the one with the most experience combating illegal immigration – face an uphill battle if they are to seize the Oval Office.
Among Latinos, Perry, the governor of Texas, has the worst favorability ratings of the top three GOP hopefuls: negative 22 percent, according to the latest Univision/Latino Decisions poll. In addition, Perry has high negative ratings among the general electorate: negative 16 percent
By comparison, Romney and Cain are more liked than disliked, with the former Massachusetts governor at positive 4 percent and Cain far ahead at positive 13 percent. But it is worth noting that the poll was conducted between Friday Oct. 21 and Tuesday Nov., on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 31, when allegations of sexual harassment were leveled at Cain dating back to his time at the National Restaurant Association.
The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, who has surged toward the top of the Republican field this fall, leads the new Univision-Latino Decisions poll. Among people nationwide intending to vote, Cain enjoys 23 percent support, followed by Romney at 18 percent, Perry at 10 percent, and Gingrich showing signs of life at 8 percent. Among Latinos, meanwhile, Romney leads with 18 percent support, followed by Perry at 13 percent, Cain at 12 percent, and Gingrich at 4 percent. With Latinos so prominent in early voting states such as Florida, Nevada and South Carolina, winning the Latino vote could prove crucial in the GOP primary.
At the moment, Latinos are not very familiar with the slate of Republican candidates. Over half – 53 percent – have no opinion of or have never heard of Cain, for instance. All four of the above candidates – Romney, Perry, Cain and Gingrich – have net negative favorability ratings among Latinos.
“It should be very eye opening that they have a lot of work to do on Latino outreach,” Barreto said. “They really need to work on the messaging and the volume of their outreach. The name recognition – even for someone like Romney who’s run before – is very minimal. They need to ratchet up their outreach.”
At an event last month in Sioux City, Iowa, Romney said he thinks the GOP’s biggest weakness as a party is communicating with Latinos.
“I think we do an ineffective job too early communicating with young people and Hispanic voters. Another weakness of us – we’re not doing very well with Hispanic voters and other minorities,” Romney said. “The Hispanic vote is a very large population of our voting public, and ours is the party that wants to preserve the American opportunity that theirs or their ancestors came here for.”
To date, some Latinos may have been put off by the GOP candidates’ stances on immigration. The hot-button topic has played a high-profile role in the GOP debates to date. First Perry caught fire for his policy of giving in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants in Texas. Then Romney was ripped for employing two illegal immigrants to do yard work at his Massachusetts home.
But many members of the Latino community are more concerned about jobs and the economy than they are about immigration reform. According to the Univision/Latino Decisions poll, among all voters nationwide, 74 percent said the most important issue in how they will pick a candidate to support jobs and the economy, while only 10 percent said immigration reform. Among Latinos, 65 percent said it was jobs and the economy, with 23 percent saying immigration reform.
“There’s been this obsession on both sides of the immigration debate that either it’s the only issue or it doesn’t matter at all because everything is about the economy,” Barreto said. “But what we’re finding in here – because we asked the questions in a nuanced way – is that the economy is the head issue for Latino voters as we head into 2012. it’s the dominant issue and that shouldn’t surprise us because it’s really the only issue discussed in the media. But there’s very strong evidence here that how you talk about immigration and what you signal on immigration is going to be extremely relevant.”
As part of the new poll, people were asked how they would weigh the economy and immigration in a hypothetical situation. If a person supported a candidate’s economic plan but the candidate said illegal immigrants were a threat to the country, who have committed a crime and should never be given amnesty, would that candidate still earn their vote? Forty-one percent of all voters said they would be less likely to support that candidate, while 25 percent said they would be more likely to support the candidate. Among Latinos, though, 59 percent said they would not back the candidate, with only 14 percent saying they would be more likely to give their support.
What if the opposite were true? If a person supported a candidate’s economic plan and the candidate said that immigrants should be treated with respect and assimilated into the country, would that candidate still earn their vote? Forty-six percent of all voters said they would be more likely to vote for the candidate, with only 15 percent less likely to pledge their support. Among Latinos, an overwhelming 76 percent said they would be more likely to support the candidate, with 5 percent stating that they would be less likely to do so.
Ultimately, it is clear that when economic views are set aside, hostile anti-immigrant statements damage a candidate’s support, while positive statements about immigrants increase support. Predictably, this trend is far stronger among Latino voters, but it is still present among the general electorate.
“What we found there was extremely strong support that even if Latinos supported a candidate’s view on the economy – even among people who said the economy was their number-one issue – an overwhelming majority move away from the candidate when they make anti-immigrant statements,” Barreto said. “The way that you talk about immigrants is very important. Both parties need to take a message from that – they need to change their tone and they also need to be careful what they promise on the Obama side because people are paying attention.”
For instance, the DREAM Act, the Democrats’ bill that would help undocumented students who came to this country before age 16 become legal residents after five years by completing higher education or military service, enjoys widespread support among all voters. Latinos favor the bill is 84 percent to 11 percent, while a significant majority of the general electorate also backs the measure by 58 percent to 28 percent.
In recent months, the heated immigration fight has reached the Supreme Court, while Alabama, Arizona and South Carolina have passed strict anti-immigration measures, generating a wave of controversy as well as concern among Latinos. According to the new Univision-Latino Decisions poll, 67 percent of Latinos believe illegal immigrants should be granted a path to citizenship, a view shared by 58 percent of all voters. But 25 percent of all voters believe illegal immigrants should be deported.
Asked which party comes closer to their views on immigration, 53 percent of all voters answered that it was the Republican party, while 39 percent replied that it was the Democrats. That was reversed among Latinos, with 34 percent saying Democrats come closest to sharing their views and only 15 percent responding that they side with the GOP.
Overall, 47 percent of Americans believe that the Democratic Party has reached out to Latinos, while only 20 percent say the same about Republicans. Indeed, 14 percent of voters nationally feel that the GOP is hostile toward Latinos, a view shared by 30 percent of Latinos.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.