By MATTHEW JAFFE and JORDAN FABIAN
Only nine months from Election Day, Latino voters - the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc - favor President Obama over all the Republican candidates by a wide margin, according to a new poll conducted by Latino Decisions for Univision News and ABC News, a welcome boost for a White House facing a difficult reelection fight.
While Latinos tend to side with Democrats - and voted for Obama by a two-to-one margin in 2008 - they also have a prominent role to play in the upcoming GOP nominating contests in Nevada and, more immediately, in Florida, which votes on Jan. 31.
In the Sunshine State, where about one in 10 likely Republican primary voters are Latino, Mitt Romney has a large, 26-point lead over his closest rival Newt Gingrich, 49 percent to 23 percent among Latino Republicans. Among all Florida Latinos, the margin is 35 to 20 in favor of Romney, with 21 percent undecided.
Florida's GOP primary is closed, meaning one must be a registered Republican in order to participate.
Thus far, Gingrich's shocking victory in Saturday's South Carolina primary has not triggered a significant boost in his Latino support in Florida. In the final days of polling, Sunday and Monday, Gingrich's Latino support in Florida only increased by 2 percentage points.
"I'm not seeing a significant bounce for Gingrich out of South Carolina in the sense that it's not like he has passed Romney or anything," said Gary Segura, a principal at Latino Decisions. "Obviously Gingrich is doing much better than he was in November - then he was at 4 percent nationally, now he's at 15."
Romney's support appears to be driven by the state's most influential Latino Republican voting bloc, Cuban-Americans. Among Florida Latinos of Cuban origin - a group that constitutes around 540,000 of the state's 1.5 million Latino voters - Romney leads Gingrich by 32 points, 49 percent to 17 percent.
Though Latinos only constitute 11 percent of the Florida GOP primary electorate, they have the power to swing the contest. In 2008 Romney lost the Florida primary to Sen. John McCain after the Arizona lawmaker won 54 percent of the Latino vote compared to Romney's 14 percent - the Cuban population sided with McCain 52 percent to 13 percent.
But this time around Romney has secured the endorsement of a slew of key Florida Republicans with Cuban roots, such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a lineup that featured in a Spanish-language ad that the former Massachusetts governor released in the state.
"Romney leads Gingrich … in Florida. That may be an effect of the endorsements of the three Latino Republican members of Congress," said Segura.
Puerto Ricans, who constitute the second-largest faction of Florida Latinos - numbering around 480,000, also back Romney over Gingrich, but only by a 10-point margin, 22 percent to 12 percent. Latino voters who hail from other places, like Central and South America, also back Romney 29 percent to 21 percent.
While Obama is trouncing Romney and Gingrich nationally with Latino voters, the margins are closer in Florida, which has 29 electoral votes up for grabs.
In a hypothetical head-to-head general election matchup with Obama, 40 percent of Florida Latinos say they would vote for Romney, while 50 percent prefer Obama. But if Gingrich secures the GOP nomination, Obama would have an even greater advantage among Latinos in the state, with only 38 percent supporting the former House Speaker and 52 percent opting for the president.
Another indication of the unique make-up of Florida's Hispanic community is the fact that Cubans in the state side with Romney over Obama 54 percent to 34 percent, while Puerto Ricans back Obama 67 percent to 23 percent. Others favor Obama over Romney 52 percent to 36 percent.
On a national level, Obama enjoys even greater support among Latinos. Sixty-seven percent of respondents say they would vote for Obama in a general election bout with Romney, who only earned 25 percent support. Seventy percent say they would vote for Obama, compared to 22 percent for Gingrich. In the primary race, 25 percent back Romney, 16 percent Gingrich, 20 percent said they would back someone someone other than Romney, Gingrich or fellow hopefuls Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, and 21 percent say they still do not know who to support.
While some Latinos have complained about Obama's failed promise to take up immigration reform and bring down the country's unemployment rate -53 percent say they are less excited about Obama than they were three years ago - for the most part they remain supportive of the president.
Sixty-three percent of Latinos nationally say they approve of the job Obama is doing, with 29 percent saying they strongly support his performance in office. Thirty-one percent disapprove.
In addition, 72 percent say they have a favorable impression of the president, while a large chunk of Latino voters do not feel the same way about the Republican candidates - 42 percent say they have an unfavorable view of Gingrich and 41 percent say they have an unfavorable view of Romney.
"The number of respondents familiar with Republicans has gone up, but familiarity has not bred affection. Both Gingrich and Romney are viewed less favorably than they were two months ago. Romney was at negative eight. Now he's at negative 13," Segura said. "Gingrich went from negative 13 to negative 18. The good news for Republican candidates is more Hispanic voters know who they are, the bad news is they don't like them very much."
Despite the fact the Latino unemployment rate is stuck at 11 percent, 66 percent of Hispanics blame the nation's economic doldrums on former President George W. Bush, but only 18 percent fault Obama.
Such sentiments may be due, in part, to the impression that Democrats are doing a better job than Republicans in reaching out to Latino voters - 39 percent of respondents say Democrats are doing a good job on that front, while 45 percent of respondents said Republicans don't care too much about Hispanics and 27 percent even believe that the GOP is being flat-out hostile towards them.
The Republican primary to date has been full of harsh rhetoric on immigration, which 46 percent of respondents list as the most important issue facing the Latino community that the president and Congress need to address, a close second to economy and jobs, which are cited by 50 percent of respondents.
Only days before he lost the Iowa caucuses by a mere 34 votes, Romney said that if elected he would veto the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented children of immigrants who attend college or serve in the military.
Romney's stance infuriated some Latinos from Iowa to New Hampshire, who vowed not to vote for him. Juan Rodriguez, a businessman in Des Moines, said he would not support Romney due to the candidate's comments on immigration. Esteban Lopez, a Goffstown, N.H., resident who will vote for the first time in the general election later this year, said he too would not back Romney.
Immigration is a less clear-cut issue in Florida than it is nationwide, which could help explain the varying gaps between Obama and the Republicans candidates in the two samples.
In the Sunshine State, only 37 percent of Latino voters say opposition to the DREAM Act would make them less likely to support a candidate, though 70 percent say that support for it would make them more likely to vote for a candidate. But, nationwide, more than half, 54 percent, say opposition to the DREAM Act would make them less likely to support a candidate.
Romney went on to win the New Hampshire primary in a landslide, before suffering a resounding loss to Gingrich last weekend in South Carolina. The two rivals now head into Florida's Jan. 31 primary neck-and-neck. Gingrich, for his part, has made more of an effort than anyone else in the Republican field to reach out to Latinos.
At a debate in Washington, D.C., last November, Gingrich outlined the most moderate immigration stance of all the candidates, saying that the government should not expel immigrants if they have laid down roots here - for instance, if they have been here for a quarter of a century, raising a family, paying taxes, and obeying the law. While Gingrich does not think those undocumented immigrants should be granted full citizenship, he does think they should get legal status.
On the DREAM Act, Gingrich has stated that he supports the military aspect of the measure, but not the scholastic side of it. At Monday night's GOP debate in Tampa, Gingrich said that as president he would work to develop a "sign-able" version of the bill.
In the next week, as the campaign trail weaves around Florida, expect to hear lots more about immigration and Latinos. After all, just ask Romney how important Hispanics can be in the state.
The Univision News/ABC News survey was conducted in English and Spanish by Latino Decisions from Jan. 16-23, 2011. The results are based on a sample of 500 Latino registered voters nationally and 517 Latino registered voters in Florida. Each sample has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.
Jordan Fabian is political editor for Univision in English.