For the first time in this presidential election both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney this week will directly address Latinos, a crucial voting bloc that could swing this fall’s race for the White House.
On Thursday, Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, will speak to the annual conference held by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). On Friday it is Obama’s turn. The dueling speeches highlight both parties’ push to win the support of the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc.
The battlelines appear to be drawn. Obama enjoys a huge edge among Latinos, as he has dating back to his 2008 victory over Sen. John McCain. That year Obama won 67 percent of the Latino vote – and this year he looks poised to do even better, especially on the heels of his announcement last Friday that his administration would not seek to deport up to 800,000 children of illegal immigrants living in this country. An ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier this spring revealed 73 percent of Latinos backing Obama, compared with only 26 percent for Romney. Since Friday’s move by the White House, polls have shown a nearly double-digit jump in support for Obama among Latinos.
Obama’s decision to relax the country’s deportation laws directly answered one of the main gripes that Latinos had previously expressed about his tenure in the Oval Office: his failure to deal with immigration reform. Despite promising comprehensive reforms when he was on the campaign trail in 2008, Obama never followed through, despite enjoying a Democrat-controlled Congress during his first two years in Washington. Even the DREAM Act, a scaled-back immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants who join the military or attend college, failed to pass the Senate in late 2009. The new White House policy to offer temporary work permits to young illegal immigrants who came into this country as children is similar to the DREAM Act.
“The announcement on June 14 appears to have clearly erased Obama’s enthusiasm deficit among Latinos,” said Matt Barreto, a researcher at Latino Decisions and associate professor of political science at the University of Washington.
If Obama has any cause for concern about Latinos, it may be turnout. The number of registered Latino voters dropped significantly in recent years – and projections on how many Latinos will vote in November, once as high as 12.2 million according to NALEO, now hover around 10.5 million, according to the William C. Velasquez Institute.
Still, Romney is in a much more difficult position. Not only is he facing an opponent who won Latinos by more than a two-to-one margin in the last election, but he has to address criticism from Latinos after a series of controversial comments during the GOP primary. The former Massachusetts governor vowed to veto the DREAM Act, praised Arizona’s controversial new anti-immigrant law, and touted the endorsement of controversial anti-immigration activist Kris Kobach. If Romney cannot boost his standing among Latinos to around 40 percent support, then according to Republican strategist Ana Navarro earlier this year, “He can kiss the White House goodbye.”
Even members of his own party have acknowledged the difficult road ahead for Romney. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, said Latinos “have been alienated” over the course of the GOP campaign this past year.
Now it appears that Romney’s best hope of convincing Latinos to support him may be capitalizing on their economic struggles. The jobless rate among Latinos is currently 11 percent, higher than the national average of 8.2 percent, and this week the Republican National Committee released a new web video in both English and Spanish that criticizes Obama for the country’s economic woes, especially those faced by Latinos.
“After four years of President Obama, our economy isn’t better,” a graphic in the ad reads.
When asked about Obama’s policy change last Friday, Romney this week called it an attempt to “change the subject” from his comments earlier this month that “the private sector is doing fine.”
“I believe that the reason this came out is the president is trying to shore up his base with Latino voters and he’s also trying to change the subject from his miserable speech last week – from his gaffe that the private economy is doing fine and from the failure of his economic policies to get this economy going again,” Romney said in an interview with FOX News Radio.
While it will be difficult for Romney to raise his standing among Latinos, he may be heartened by the fact that Latinos cite the economy – not immigration reform – as their top priority. In addition, picking a prominent Hispanic lawmaker such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as his running mate could help him even more.
On the heels of a week when it emerged that Romney was not vetting Rubio, a charge the presumptive GOP nominee vehemently denied Tuesday night, not considering a top Latino such as Rubio could damage Romney’s standing among the country’s largest ethnic minority.
On top of that, Romney’s failure to take a stand on Obama’s new immigration policy has put him in a difficult position. He has been criticized for not coming out with a clear stance on it, but while agreeing with the policy could win him support among Latinos, such an approach would hurt his standing with the far right.
Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform group, said Romney “has to say something about immigration” at the conference in Orlando, but both options come with risks.
“If he says what he said in the primaries he’ll be booed. If he pulls out his etch-a-sketch the far right will be apoplectic. And if he dodges the issue he will raise questions about whether he has the chops to be president,” Sharry said. “He’s painted himself into a corner and by ducking the issue this week he has only raised the stakes of his speech at NALEO. Given the importance of the Hispanic vote in this election, the fate of his candidacy could hang in the balance.”
The Romney campaign said Wednesday that they would have “a few more things… to say about immigration” on Thursday in Florida. The stakes, clearly, are high.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.