Hispanic Voters On the Fence

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Candidate Barack Obama ’s 2012 campaign team is set to announce a Hispanic outreach campaign next week, just as President Barack Obama travels to the Mexican border to give a speech on immigration.

Hispanics are a key element in his reelection campaign, partly because his support among working-class whites and swing-voters have crashed after two years of lousy economic conditions. But Hispanics’ turnout is low, and their lopsided support for him has tumbled from 68 percent to 54 percent over the last few years.

“When they have the conversations about how to ensure turnout in the Hispanic community is raised to win the election, the advantage of having of a Latino voice in the room is tremendous,” said a Democratic activist.

The El Paso speech, slated for Tuesday, “will reflect the President’s continued commitment to find a bipartisan way to create… comprehensive immigration reform,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday. “The fact that we were not able to achieve that in the first two years only means that we need to refocus our efforts,” said Carney.

The term, “comprehensive immigration reform,” is D.C.-code for a law that combines some level of enhanced border security with a large scale amnesty for the population of roughly 12 million illegal immigrants.

In 2008, the Obama campaign won extremely high levels of voters in critical sectors, including post-graduates, unmarried women, African-Americans, and youths. So there’s not much opportunity to get more votes from these groups in 2012 to offset the votes now being lost among independents and white working-class voters. But Democrats can raise their vote-total by winning a large slice of newly registered Hispanic voters, especially if they can increase turnout in 2012.

In 2008, the Hispanic vote increased by 30 percent compared to 2004, and helped Obama win several swing-states, including Colorado, North Carolina, Indiana and Nevada, according to a post-election analysis by the William C. Velasquez Institute. Cuban-Americans in Florida leaned towards the GOP, but Obama got more than 70 percent of the Mexican-American vote.

“We got 68 percent of the Latino vote in 2008, and we have to do whatever it takes to ensure that [higher] turnout keeps those numbers at that level, especially in the battleground states,” said Andes Lopez, a Puerto Rican representative on the Democratic National Committee. In 2012, he said, “the target is to make is substantially higher.”

“I don’t know how Obama wins without winning a massive majority of the [Hispanic] vote again,” said Bettina Inclan, a New York-based GOP consultant who works with Hispanic voters in California and Florida.

Recent polls show Obama’s declining support in the Hispanic community, down to the mid-50s, she said. That “pretty bad for Obama, so the White House has noticed and we’ve seen a ramp-up in the effort by the White House to show [Hispanic voters] ‘I have not forgotten you,’” she said.

Hispanics are primarily worried about the economy and jobs, but Obama may try to boost registration, turnout and his percentage of the votes by advertising his support for some form of amnesty, despite having failed to pass an immigration law since he gained power, she said. It would be a hard sell, because his pitch would be “‘trust me, this time, I’ll come through,’” she said.

Even if Obama is reelected in 2012, there’s little chance an amnesty bill will be passed. That’s because the GOP is widely expected to keep its majority in the House, and to gain a majority in the Senate.

In recent weeks, Obama has hosted three White House events on immigration for business leaders who support amnesties, for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and for Hispanic media celebrities, including actress Eva Longoria. “That’s part of the administration’s effort to create a broad base of support from faces that the Latino community recognizes as trustworthy,” said Lopez, who is also working with Longoria to win congressional support for a national Latino museum in Washington D.C.

Republicans can counter this outreach to Hispanics by simultaneously offering a good economic message and by showing respect towards Hispanics, Inclan said. “I don’t believe in amnesty, and there’s probably a very large number of Hispanics that agree with me,” she said. But, “more than anything else, people don’t like [disrespectful] rhetoric about immigration, and that’s what gets them upset,” she said.

But whenever conservatives oppose immigration, whatever the quality of the argument, the ethnicity of opponents or the ethnicity of the would-be immigrants, Hispanics “are hit by advertising telling them this is a racist attack on them,” said Roy Beck, director of NumbersUSA, a group that is seeking to reduce legal and illegal immigration from all corners of the world. Those hard-ball tactics work, even though Hispanics are especially hard-hit competition from each wave of new immigrants, he said. Political consultants “use demagoguery because demagoguery works to an extent,” he said.

GOP candidates around the country have successfully managed the immigration issue, Inclan said. In 2010, GOP Hispanics won the Florida Senate seat and governor’s jobs in new Mexico and Nevada, Iclan said. “They had positions on immigration, but they talked about jobs and economy,” she said. Also, Mitt Romney , Newt Gingrich and other GOP presidential aspirants have a good record in reaching out to Hispanic voters, she said. Hispanic voters “want to feel that you care about them, that you care about what they say… and that their children lives will be okay,” she said.

In 2008, only 1.6 percent of Hispanics said immigration was the most important issue, far below the 57 percent that put the economy first, and also well below the 2.1 percent that put rights for gays and lesbians first, said the Velasquez study.

Regardless of immigration controversies, immigrants tend to favor economic redistribution, but GOP candidates can get 40 percent of the Hispanic vote by pitching policies that favor education, job creation and immigration curbs, said Beck.

One problem for Democrats is that their coalition is split by the immigration issue, Inclan said. Polling data shows that African-Americans and working-class whites oppose amnesties, and so democrats are trying to advertise immigration as good for the national economy. “It is wrong when it is positioned as a Hispanic issue,” said Lopez. “It is not even remotely a Hispanic issue at all…[because] Latinos are a motor of the economy,” he said.

On Saturday, the White House announced that the president’s Tuesday speech will be about “fixing the broken immigration system so that it meets America’s 21st century economic and security needs.”

Another issue, Inclan said, is the poor turnout of Hispanics when compared to African-Americans. “This is a problem for Republicans, but is even bigger for Democrats, ” because they’re more dependent on Hispanic voters,” she said. Many Hispanics are too young, or are not citizens, so less than half of the 50 million population is eligible to vote, she said.

Democrats campaign-officials hope to drive up the number of Hispanics who register, turnout and vote Democratic. There’s room for the Obama campaign to get more Hispanic votes, because roughly 60 percent of adult Latino Americans are registered to vote. Roughly 70 percent of Blacks, and 74 percent of whites, are registered. “Every month for the next 20 years, there will be 50,000 Latinos turning 18,” said Lopez. “It is incumbent upon us to devise a long-term plan to boost turnout [by getting] Latinos accustomed to exercise their power by leveraging their numbers through the ballot box.”

“Otherwise their political power will never match to their numbers,” Lopez said.