Mitt Romney’s strategist Eric Fehrnstrom set off a firestorm Wednesday with his comments that, come the general election, “everything changes, it’s almost like an Etch A Sketch; you can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
But lost in the ensuing controversy about his statement is that Romney will undoubtedly need to take some of his positions and “shake it up and restart all over again” if he is to defeat President Obama this fall.
Romney could start with his stance on issues affecting Latinos, the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc. Romney has vowed during the GOP primary to veto the DREAM Act, the Democrats’ measure to provide a path to citizenship for some children of undocumented immigrants who attend college or serve in the military; praised Arizona’s strict immigration law that ordered immigrants to carry their registration documents at all times and mandated that police question them if there was reason to suspect that they were in the country illegally, calling the measure “a model”; touted the endorsement of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the author of the controversial law; and outlined an immigration policy based on the notion of “self-deportation.”
Also, when pressed on a lawn-care company he once used that employed undocumented immigrants, Romney noted that he told the company, “I’m running for office for Pete’s sake; I can’t have illegals.”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that according to a late January poll conducted by Latino Decisions for ABC News and Univision, 67 percent of Latinos said they would back Obama in a matchup against Romney, who only earned 25 percent of their support. Forty-one percent of Latinos nationwide said they have a somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable view of Romney.
A whopping 72 percent of Latinos said the Republican candidates in the primary either don’t care too much about Latinos or are being outright hostile toward Latinos.
In interviews during the primary season, numerous Latino voters have flatly stated that they will not back Romney because of his immigration stance. Juan Rodriguez, a businessman in Iowa, said he “wouldn’t vote for Romney because he doesn’t support immigration reform or the DREAM Act.”
Esteban Lopez, who works in education in New Hampshire, said he knows “first-hand how important the DREAM Act is for Latino youth,” so “the short answer is I wouldn’t vote for Romney.”
Sylvia Garcia, a spokeswoman for Newt Gingrich’s campaign, believes Romney “is going to have to answer tough questions from the Latino community if he becomes the candidate,” citing Romney’s ties with Kansas Secretary of State Kobach and his “self-deportation” policy. Garcia said Romney has “completely changed his message” toward Latinos during the primary, which, she noted, “leads me to believe he will just shake the Etch A Sketch and start all over” in the general election.
“It completely surprises me that other candidates don’t realize how important Hispanic inclusion is in their success in beating Obama,” Garcia said. “Thinking that – after all they have said in this Republican campaign – it will be forgotten in the general election is plain naïve.”
Not only have GOP rivals such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum ripped Romney’s Latino approach, but the Obama campaign has taken note, too, repeatedly hammering Romney as “the most extreme presidential candidate” ever on Latino issues, in the words of Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif.
They are well aware that if Obama is able to replicate the 76 percent support he received from Latinos in 2008 – something well within his reach – then in all likelihood the president will win another term in the White House. To that end, expect his campaign to take every opportunity to remind Latino voters about Romney’s rhetoric toward them in the GOP primary. An Etch A Sketch will be of little use there.
But Romney could take certain steps to boost his support among Latinos to, as Fehrnstrom said, “shake it up.” For starters, he could pick Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as his running mate. The Latino Decisions poll in January showed that 60 percent of Latino Republicans in Florida would be much more likely to vote Republican in November if Rubio is added to the GOP ticket.
Nationwide, 13 percent of Latinos said they would be much more likely to vote Republican if that happened, with 12 percent saying they would be somewhat more likely to back the GOP if Rubio joined forces with Romney.
Romney can also help his cause by emphasizing his support for the military component of the DREAM Act. While that won’t help him with students like Lucy Allain – a college student with a 4.0 GPA but no path to citizenship – it might soften his veto threat of the overall bill and show Latino voters that he is prepared to back part of the measure. In recent weeks, Romney has done a better job of reaching out to Latinos, proclaiming after his huge win Saturday in the Puerto Rico primary, “I intend to become our nominee and I intend to get Latino voters to vote for a Republican.”
Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist from Florida, believes that Romney will have a difficult time hitting the “reset” button, but that there are ways for him to improve his standing among Latinos, such as focusing on the fact that Obama promised to enact sweeping immigration reform, but never made good on it.
“Resetting, rebooting, erasing and starting with a blank canvas is a lot more challenging today than it once was,” Navarro said. “We live in the YouTube, videophone, 24-7 news cycle. Everything you say, regardless of where you say it, is now bound to follow you until the day you die. On immigration in particular, Romney wouldn’t necessarily reset, but he does need to pivot.
“Instead of focusing on trying to out-right wing his Republican opponents on immigration, he needs to focus squarely on Obama’s failure on this issue. He needs to stop talking about being hard-line, become more nuanced in what he says and at the same time go hard-core attacking Obama for breaking his promise to Latinos to get immigration reform done in his first year.”
“For Hispanics,” she noted, “your word is your bond. Obama gave his word and didn’t fulfill it. Romney needs to bring that up and be laser focused on that every time he speaks.”
Unfortunately for Romney, Latinos have not been the only group alienated by some of his comments during the long, drawn-out GOP primary. Some women have also been offended by the candidate’s rightward shift on social issues such as contraception. Romney vowed earlier this year to eliminate funding for Title X, the federal family-planning program.
He caught flak last week for saying that he wanted to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood, one organization that receives federal funds from Title X. In an interview with St. Louis TV station KDSK, Romney listed programs that he would cut in an effort to reduce spending.
“Of course, you get rid of Obamacare – that’s the easy one – but there are others,” he said. “Planned Parenthood, we’re going to get rid of that. The subsidy for Amtrak, I would eliminate that. The National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities – both excellent programs – but we can’t afford to borrow money to pay for these things.”
Such comments are hard to “restart all over again,” but going forward, making Romney’s wife, Ann, more prominent on the campaign trail would be one way to attempt to offset some of the female backlash that Romney faces. The Romney campaign, it warrants mentioning, has stated that his Planned Parenthood comments were taken out of context because he was advocating getting rid of federal funding for the organization, not the organization itself.
There are other stances that will jump out to Romney’s opponents, too, especially as it pertains to government intervention into the business world. Romney told the Las Vegas Review Journal’s editorial board in October that the government should not attempt to “stop the foreclosure process,” but rather “let it run its course and hit the bottom.”
A 2008 op-ed by Romney in the New York Times was titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” a headline on which Democrats have seized repeatedly. Romney hardly helped himself by staging a campaign speech last month in cavernous Ford Field that was only sparsely attended. Noting that Ann “drives a couple of Cadillacs” did not endear him to people hit hard by the country’s economic downturn either.
In addition, Romney has provided fodder for his foes by making a slew of comments that play into his critics’ claims that he is so wealthy that he is out of touch with middle-class Americans. When he attended the Daytona 500 earlier this year, Romney cited that he has “some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”
At a December debate in Des Moines, Romney offered to bet rival Rick Perry $10,000. He claimed that the money he earned from speaking engagements was “not very much,” but “not very much” turned out to be more than $370,000. He shouted at a heckler at the Iowa State last summer that “corporations are people.”
In New Hampshire in January, attempting to explain why he wants people to be able to pick and choose their insurance plans, Romney noted that he likes “being able to fire people.” And no sooner had he won Florida’s primary than he caused a stir when he told CNN, “I’m not concerned about the very poor” because “we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”
While Romney quickly clarified his remarks by explaining that he was saying that his focus as president would be on the middle-class, it was only the latest unfortunate comment that could come back to haunt him in the general election, especially with less well-off voters, a group that Romney has struggled to win over in the primary.
Whether it is with less wealthy voters, women or Latinos, Romney has some work to do. Ultimately, Romney’s toughest task might be repairing the bridges burned with the Latino community. With 12.2 million Latinos expected to vote later this year, that is a group large enough – and prominent enough in key states such as Florida, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona – to determine who holds the White House for the next four years.
In reality, almost every presidential nominee shifts toward the center when the primary turns to the general election, but Romney will have to address his problems with Latinos, according to Republican strategist Carlos Curbelo.
“It is not a secret in American politics that the primary and general campaigns are very different,” Curbelo said. “Anyone who suggests otherwise is being disingenuous. Of course, Mitt Romney will have to pivot as all candidates do when transitioning to the general election.
“On immigration he will have to explain to Hispanic voters that there is great passion in this country against illegal immigration; which is understandable, given that we are a nation that values the rule of law. At the same time, he will have to offer real solutions for our broken immigration system and reject the anti-immigrant vitriol that emanates from a small minority of conservatives. The GOP primary electorate does not require this kind of discussion. The national electorate certainly does.”
After Fehrnstrom’s ill-advised moment of frankness Wednesday, Romney quickly sought to, well, use an Etch A Sketch on his aide’s comment. Only minutes after tersely telling reporters in Maryland, “I’m not doing a press conference right now,” Romney then held a news conference of sorts, delivering a statement on the Etch A Sketch mess.
“The issues I’m running on will be exactly the same,” he said. “I’m running as a conservative Republican, I was a conservative Republican governor, I’ll be running as a conservative Republican nominee.”
But whether Romney and his campaign admit it, he will hope that he can “restart” on some of the issues that have seen him veer to the right in the GOP primary. Unfortunately for him, that will be easier said than done.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.