After cruising to victory in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney (along with the other candidates, and their faithful media retinue) is flying south, where primaries in South Carolina and Florida could seal his position as the de facto nominee. The shift of focus to Florida, with its large population of Latino voters, delivers the first real reminder of this demographic’s substantial and growing influence. Although the Latino vote isn’t likely to dramatically alter the outcome of the primary race, they promise to play a crucial role in the general election, where the fate of states like Florida, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada could hinge on Latino voters. The question is whether, in winning the primary by appealing to conservative views on immigration, the GOP may have shot itself in the foot when it comes to this influential population.
According to the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, “Republican strategists today think that their candidate can’t win without receiving at least 35% of the Hispanic vote—as George W. Bush did in 2000 and 2004, but as John McCain did not in 2008.” But Republican candidates, Mitt Romney prominent among them, have taken strong positions opposed to immigration policies like the Dream Act. Romney said that as president, he would veto the Dream Act, which would afford illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children a path to citizenship if they attended college or joined the military. During the debates, he attacked rivals Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for allowing illegal immigrants to attend college at in-state tuition rates (Perry) and supporting “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for more than 25 years (Gingrich).
Romney has the endorsements of a handful of influential Latino Republicans, including several from Florida. But if he becomes the nominee, he will be treading on thin ice with Latino voters in the general election. For example:
- Nearly 8-in-10 (79%) of Hispanic Americans do not believe that the U.S. should make a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries.
- Fully 95% of Hispanic Americans describe immigrants coming to the U.S. today as “hard-working,” while 91% agree that they have “strong family values.”
- Nearly 8-in-10 (78%) of Latinos favor allowing illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to gain legal resident status if they join the military or go to college.
In his piece on Marco Rubio, a Hispanic Florida senator and a rising star in the GOP, Auletta notes that Republicans’ opposition to legislation like the Dream Act “appeals to Tea Party activists, who are angry that American laws are being broken and that illegal immigrants fill jobs that could go to Americans.” (And it’s true that only 39% of Tea Party members favor the Dream Act). But the Tea Party has yet to flex its muscle in the 2012 campaign, making it entirely possible that candidates like Romney, in appealing to the conservative core of the Republican party, may have alienated a strategically important population.
Obama’s weak approval ratings among Hispanic Americans could be encouraging to Republicans; a survey conducted by PRRI last fall revealed that only half of Hispanic voters approve of the way that Obama is handling his job as president. It’s still possible that Latino voters, frustrated with their options, could stay home next November. But Romney’s hardline stance on immigration, which it will be difficult for him to tone down between now and the election, might end up inspiring Latinos to come out for Obama, despite his lackluster approval ratings.