How Mitt Romney Could Lure Latinos

PHOTO: Mitt Romney addresses his supporters during an Illinois GOP primary victory party at the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel March 20, 2012 in Schaumburg, Illinois.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Mitt Romney addresses his supporters during an Illinois GOP primary victory party at the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel March 20, 2012 in Schaumburg, Illinois.

The conventional wisdom is that Mitt Romney has a problem with Latinos. The nation's fastest-growing voting bloc opted for President Obama by more than a two-to-one margin in 2008, and after a series of comments by Romney during the Republican primary alienated Latinos, Democrats hope to do even better this time around.

"I'm actually thinking that the way it looks right now that I expect that the president is going to get an even higher percentage in 2012," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa predicted in an interview last month.

Recent polls appear to back up Democrats' optimism. A poll conducted by Latino Decisions for ABC News and Univision in late January revealed 67 percent support for Obama among registered Latino voters nationwide, compared with 25 percent support for Romney.

If that holds true, it would likely be enough to hand Obama another term in the White House.

"Romney desperately needs to improve his numbers with Latinos. Polls show Romney trailing by as much as an unbelievable 50 percentage points behind President Obama with Hispanic voters," wrote Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist, in a CNN op-ed last Thursday. "In 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain won 31 percent of the Latino vote. It cost him states like Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Unless Romney gets close to 40 percent of the Latino vote, he can kiss the White House goodbye."

That has to be cause for concern in the Romney camp. But a closer look reveals that the outlook for the GOP hopeful among Latinos may not be quite as bleak as it appears. While Romney has made his share of missteps with Latinos – such as vowing to veto the Dream Act, advocating an immigration policy of "self-deportation" and praising Arizona's controversial new anti-immigrant law – Obama has blemishes on his record, too. During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to enact comprehensive immigration reform if elected. But despite a Democrat-controlled Congress for the first two years of his tenure, Obama failed to fulfill those promises.

"This has always been a priority for the president he chooses to do nothing about," Romney said at an April 2 campaign stop in Milwaukee. "Let the immigrant community not forget that while he uses this as a political weapon, he has not taken responsibility for fixing the problems we have."

Even the Dream Act, a scaled-down immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some children of undocumented immigrants who join the military or attend college, was defeated in the Senate. The measure was widely opposed by Republicans, but it would have passed if five Democratic senators – Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana – had not voted against it, too.

"President Obama has a credibility problem with Hispanics," Alberto Martinez, an adviser to the Romney campaign in Florida, said in an interview. "This is someone who made an unequivocal promise that he would pass comprehensive immigration reform in his first two years in office. He had his party in control of Congress for those two years and he got whatever he wanted – Obamacare, the stimulus, bailouts – and yet he never bothered to push for immigration reform. Even on the Dream Act, something he claims to support, he's been mostly silent."

If Obama couldn't enact comprehensive immigration reform with his party in control of Congress for two years, then Latinos – with Democrats now needing to pick up a net 25 seats to regain control of the House this fall – may not have much reason for optimism in a second term.

According to the Latino Decisions poll, 19 percent of Latino voters strongly disapprove of the job Obama is doing and another 12 percent disapprove of his work. That means nearly one in three Latinos are unhappy with the president's performance.

"For many Latinos, a person's word is sacred," Navarro said. "Romney should unequivocally say that Obama broke his word and dramatically increased deportation rates, causing family separation. He should sound angry and indignant about it. Romney needs to go from playing defense to playing offense on immigration."

So far, Romney has been playing more defense, with the Obama campaign dubbing him "the most extreme presidential candidate on immigration in modern history," to quote Obama spokeswoman Gabriela Domenzain.

However, immigration may ultimately be less of an issue than initially expected. For the first time in decades the number of Mexican immigrants coming to this country has dropped, from nearly 7 million in 2007 to around 6.1 million today, a Pew Hispanic Center study of government data found.

In addition, the anticipated nationwide backlash against Arizona's controversial new immigration law has yet to materialize. When the Supreme Court took up the case last Wednesday, the conservative justices on the court tried to poke holes in the Obama administration's argument that Arizona could not pursue "its own policy" of immigration control because "the Constitution vests exclusive authority over immigration matters with the national government." Justice Antonin Scalia responded that "all that means is that the government can set forth the rules concerning who belongs in this country, but if, in fact, somebody who does not belong in this country is in Arizona , Arizona has no power?"

Afterward, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, the Republican who enacted the law, said, "I feel very confident as I walked out of there that we will get a favorable ruling in late June."

While some make the mistake of thinking that immigration is the only issue that matters to Latinos, it is not. In truth, it is not even the most important issue to Latinos. That would be the economy. When asked what issues are the most important in evaluating the candidates and deciding whom to support in 2012, 36 percent of Latinos said it was fixing the economy, while 24 percent cited immigration reform, according to the Latino Decisions survey.

Latinos have been hit hard by the nation's recent recession. The unemployment rate for Latinos currently sits at 10.3 percent, compared with 8.2 percent for the country's population overall. A majority of Latinos believe that the economic downturn has been harder on their ethnic group than on other Americans, a Pew Hispanic Center survey found.

"Hispanics are an aspirational people," Navarro said. "We seek opportunities to provide a better life to our children. Romney should take every chance to remind Latinos that we have been disproportionately affected by the bad economy."

Before a Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas last October, a single mother of two named Ana – emerging from a cash loans business – said she backed Obama in 2008, but this time around she plans to vote for the eventual GOP nominee instead.

"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."

"No ha hecho nada," she said of the president, shaking her head. "He hasn't done anything."

The Obama campaign argues that Romney's economic policies are "troubling."

"More budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy," Domenzain said. "Fewer rules for Wall Street – the same formula that benefited a few, but crashed our economy and punished the middle class, especially Hispanic families."

It's not just the country's economic problems and broken immigration promises that could hurt Obama. It's also voter turnout. Although the Latino population has grown by 43 percent in the past decade – and more than 50 million Latinos now live in the country – there are real questions about turnout this fall. At one point last year, some projections estimated that a record 12.2 million Latinos would vote in November, but last month new census numbers revealed a surprisingly steep decline in registered Latino voters. In 2008, there were 11.6 million registered Latino voters, but that number fell to 10.9 million in 2010. While 2008 was a presidential election year and 2010 was only a mid-term congressional election, that was such a sizable drop that the William C. Velasquez Institute now predicts that Latino turnout this fall will be "no higher than 10.5 million votes cast."

The nation's economic woes and an increase in residential mobility are two reasons for that, but an additional problem could be a lack of enthusiasm about this fall's election. According to the Latino Decisions poll, 46 percent of Latinos said they were more enthusiastic about voting in 2008, with only 38 percent saying they feel more enthusiastic this time around.

A whopping 53 percent of Latinos said they now feel less excited about Obama.

"Hispanics are disenchanted and there's an enthusiasm gap for President Obama that did not exist in 2008," Martinez said. "Part of this has to do with his broken promises to Hispanics, and part of this has to do with the fact that his failed economic policies have left millions of Hispanics without jobs and millions more in poverty."

Some Democrats have acknowledged fears about Latino turnout as well. In the recent interview in his Los Angeles City Hall offices, Villaraigosa outlined why he is worried about turnout this fall.

"I've said for some time I'm concerned about turnout among the broader electorate. You know it seems that every year the percentage of people voting in municipal, state and even national elections seems to be going down. But as you said among Latinos that's even more true," Villaraigosa said. "So we're going to have to work hard to talk to Latino voters to really make the case to really work hard to get them out to vote at a time when the other side may be discouraging them from voting. You know, over the last couple of years we've seen in states across the country they're making it more difficult to vote. The number of states who've passed laws requiring voter IDs with the purported goal of making our elections more secure, but with the effect of limiting and undermining the vote among the poor, elderly voters, and communities of color. So we do have our work cut out for us, there's no question about it."

"There'll be an attempt to depress the vote. Yes, no question about it," he added. "That's something that we've seen again and again and again and we're going to work hard to get that vote and to really make it clear why this election is so important."

In addition to worrying about Latino turnout, the economy, and immigration, the Obama campaign has to prepare for the possibility that Romney could pick a running mate who could bolster his standing among Latinos, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The January poll from Latino Decisions found 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. With Florida such a key battleground state, a big boost from Rubio could make Romney especially formidable there, especially considering the former Massachusetts governor's resounding win in the Sunshine State's January primary. While success in a given state during the primary is no guarantee of similar success there in the general election, Romney has emerged victorious in primaries where there is a strong Latino presence, such as Arizona and Nevada in addition to Florida.

This opportunity to capitalize on the Latino vote is not lost on the Romney campaign.

"Gov. Romney is in a stronger position with Hispanics than the Obama campaign would like people to believe," Martinez said. "He had strong performances in states with large Hispanic populations like Florida, Arizona and Nevada."

"The Hispanic vote is the ultimate swing vote," he added. "You can't take it for granted or pander to it, which is precisely what the Obama approach seems to be."

Making a dent in Obama's support among Latinos won't be easy for Romney – and he's hardly helped his cause with some of his comments during the primary. Four years ago, Obama won Latino-heavy battleground states like Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico – and his campaign is now making a push in places like Arizona, a state that has traditionally voted Republican. But there is an opening for Romney this year, albeit a slim one. Whether or not he manages to make the most of it could very well determine whether or not he wins the White House.

Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.