In Latino Tug-of-War Democrats Step to the Plate

Democratic Convention unabashedly courts Latino voters, just as the RNC did.

ByAmy Bingham
August 31, 2012, 1:35 PM

Sept. 4, 2012 -- For the first time in party convention history, Latinos are taking center stage, snagging some of the most coveted speaker spots and figuring prominently in an array of Republican and Democratic convention events.

Last week during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., both Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, were introduced by Latinos. Four Latinos took the stage in prime time and three others were featured in events throughout the four-day program. More than half a dozen speakers touted their immigrant roots, and at least four spoke in Spanish, including Romney's son Craig, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz.

As the Democrats step into the spotlight this week, the party is also putting Latinos front and center. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is running the show as the Democratic National Convention's chairman, and San Antonio Mayor Juan Castro is the keynote speaker, scoring the highly coveted speaking spot that in 2004 catapulted Barack Obama onto the national stage (and soon the White House).

"This is really the first time that Latinos have taken such a front and center, visual position within both parties," said Stephen Nuno, an expert on Latino political participation and assistant professor of politics at Northern Arizona University.

Democrats could have a far easier time selling their message to the Latino community than Republicans did. Two out of three Lations said they supported President Obama over his GOP rival Mitt Romney, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll released last month.

One-third of Latino voters said they saw Romney "very negatively," while 67 percent had a positive view of Obama. "Democrats don't necessarily have a problem this election with how Latinos are going to vote," Nuno said. "The problem is, they have to convince the Latinos that Democrats are worth the effort to come out and to vote."

Only 61 percent of the Latinos polled said they had a high level of enthusiasm about November's election. That's down 20 percent from this point in the 2008 election cycle, when Lationos made up 9 percent of all voters.

But Republicans, led by Romney, aren't conceding the often left-leaning Latino vote. The Romney campaign is shooting to win 38 percent of Latino voters in November, less than 40 percent of the Latino voters that George W. Bush won in 2004, but up from the 31 percent who picked Sen. John McCain in 2008.

"I think the one thing to remember is that the Latino vote itself is not a monolithic vote," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "While they tend to trend toward Democrats, the Republicans understand they don't need a majority of this vote to win elections."

Vargas said by putting Latinos in high-profile positions at the conventions, the parties are taking a step in the right direction, albeit a small one.

"It is just one prong of what should be a multi-prong strategy," Vargas said. "If all the campaign and parties are relying on is what they are doing at the conventions, they are falling woefully short."

At this week's Democratic National Convention, the party is aiming to do more than put Latino faces on stage. The party pledged to spend one third of its convention budget at businesses run by Latinos or other minorities.

DNC Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa criticized Republicans for "window dressing" their convention with "brown faces" while their party platform is still harsh on immigration, the Dream Act and other issues that Latinos care about.

"You can't just tout out a brown face or a Spanish surname and expect the people are going to vote for your party or your candidate," Villaraigosa told reporters last week. "So you know, window dressing doesn't do much for a candidate, it's your policies, it's your platform."

Convincing Latinos to turn out, in the Democrats case, or convincing them that the Republican Party is "not a hateful party" toward Latinos could determine whether Romney or Obama are in the White House next year, Nuno said. In battleground states such as Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida, the Latino population is large enough to swing the election, he said.

"It's not so much that there are 50 million Latinos in the country, it's that Latinos are placed in certain states that have an influence over the election," he said." You lose those states, and you pretty much can't win an election at the national level anymore."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events