Obama, GOP battle for Latino vote
President Obama is facing a more skeptical Latino electorate in 2012, but Republicans are struggling to make inroads with the nation’s largest minority group. (Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV — On a hot and dry fall evening on the outskirts of Las Vegas, a single mother of two named Ana emerges from a cash loans business in a strip mall and heads to her car. These days are hard on her, as they are for many Latinos across the country.
“Two years ago I was good with one job,” she says in Spanish. “Now I’ve got two jobs and I’m still not good.”
In 2008, Ana voted for Barack Obama, but now she says she will support the eventual Republican nominee, whoever that may be. That’s how disappointed she is in the president.
“No ha hecho nada,” she says, shaking her head. “He hasn’t done anything.”
Ana is one of the lucky ones too, relatively speaking. Unemployment among Latinos has been stuck at 11.3 percent for months now - two percentage points higher than the nationwide rate.
The fastest growing population in the United States, Latinos next year could have a bigger say in the elections than ever before. If Obama is going to win a second term in the White House, he will have to convince Latinos that he will do more to improve the country’s sluggish economy than his Republican opponent.
“The Latino vote has quickly shifted from the desired vote by candidates to the required vote,” says Alex Garza, the vice president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce here in Las Vegas. “With a population of over 50 million in the U.S., it has become clear that we are the key swing vote and can make or break a candidate.”
Generally speaking, Latinos are liberals. They tend to disagree with the GOP on key issues like the government’s role in jumpstarting the economy, and immigration reform efforts like the DREAM Act, which failed in the Senate last December in the face of staunch Republican opposition. So while some Latinos like Ana are frustrated with Obama’s presidency, as a whole they are still likely to side with him next fall.
A new impreMedia/Latino Decisions poll revealed that, despite Latinos’ disappointment with Obama, at the moment there is no Republican candidate that would attract a significant percentage of the Latino vote.
“Republicans have a great challenge ahead when it comes to the Latino vote,” Matt Barreto, an advisor for Latino Decisions and professor at the University of Washington, writes on the Latino Decisions website. “This poll shows they must conduct an intensive campaign if they want to attract part of the Latino vote, since for now, the majority of these voters don’t even know them.”
For instance, frontrunner Mitt Romney and key rival Rick Perry are the best known candidates, but 46 percent have never heard of the former and 40 percent don’t know the latter.
That may come as a surprise, since Romney made a strong bid for the White House in 2008, and Perry is the governor of Texas, a state with a huge Latino population and a massive border with Mexico. While Perry is the best known candidate, he is also the least liked - the honor of most liked goes to Romney.
While, this time around, Obama may not enjoy the same support among Latinos in key swing states like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida, that does not mean that Republicans can count on Latino backing.
For instance, take the most conservative Latino state: Florida, a state with 1.5 million Latinos, accounting for around 11 percent of the voting bloc. The president - who won two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008 but has seen his approval rating plummet - still consistently polls ahead of an unnamed Republican candidate in the Sunshine State, and he holds far wider margins in Colorado and New Mexico.
Republicans still see an opening with Latinos in 2012, despite their poor poll numbers.
“In 2008, Hispanic-American support propelled President Obama to victory in crucial swing states such as Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, and even Virginia,” says Carlos Curbelo, a Republican strategist in Florida who has worked on campaigns in the past and currently advises the Perry campaign. “However, the President’s poor performance in the area of job creation and his broken promises related to immigration have left the Hispanic vote up for grabs in 2012. Unemployment among Hispanic-Americans is at 11 percent. If given a good alternative, the community will be open to supporting a Republican with strong economic credentials and a record of job creation.”
But the GOP’s biggest weakness as a party - at least in the mind of their front runner for the nomination - is communicating with Latinos.
“I think we do an ineffective job too early communicating with young people and Hispanic voters. Another weakness of ours – we’re not doing very well with Hispanic voters and other minorities,” Romney said Thursday at a stop in Sioux City, Iowa. “The Hispanic vote is a very large population of our voting public, and ours is the party that wants to preserve the American opportunity that theirs or their ancestors came here for.”
With Latinos so prominent in key early-voting states like Florida and Nevada, the fate of the Republican primary could reside in their hands. Perhaps it is no surprise then that immigration has played such a high-profile role in the GOP debates to date.
First, Perry caught fire for his policy of giving in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants in Texas. Then Romney was ripped for employing two undocumented immigrants to do yard work at his Massachusetts home. After all, the importance of winning the Latino vote in this election cycle is not lost on the Republican candidates - or Obama, for that matter.
“The president recognizes that our country’s success is intricately tied to Hispanic success and is working to strengthen the middle class by restoring the basic values that made our country great, like ensuring that hard work and responsibility are rewarded and that everyone plays by the same set of rules,” Gabriela Domenzain, spokesperson for the Obama campaign, said in a statement. “Hispanics are the fastest growing voting bloc in the country and stand to lose the most from Republican policies that will help large corporations and the wealthiest among us, at the expense of restoring economic security for Latino families.”
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.