Obama huddles with Hispanic groups to woo support for 2012 race

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama is hosting a White House meeting for Hispanic advocacy groups Monday, just a week after a Gallup poll of Hispanic voters revealed potentially lethal news for his re-election chances.

The Gallup poll showed that Obama’s support among Hispanics fell almost a third in the last 18 months, down from 73 percent in December 2009 to 52 percent in June 2011. That’s very bad news for Democrats, because Obama’s re-election strategy depends on a Hispanic landslide in swing states such as Florida and Virginia.

But it is good news for Republicans, who are trying to boost their share of the overall Hispanic vote up to and beyond 40 percent.

The two-day Hispanic Policy Conference brings “community leaders from across the country together with a broad range of White House and Cabinet officials for an in-depth series of interactive workshops and substantive conversations,” according to a White House statement issued Friday. The event is being held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is part of the White House complex, and only a minute’s walk from the White House.

The ethnic advocates will meet with senior officials, including Tom Perez, who runs the social-issues arm of the Department of Justice, Alejandro Mayorkas, the director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, and Felicia Escobar, the White House’s senior immigration advisor. Most of the meeting will be open to press, but the schedule excludes media at 4.30 p.m. President Obama may choose to meet the advocates at that time.

Over the last few months, Obama has met several times with Hispanic opinion-leaders, including news, radio and entertainment personalities, because he needs to spur a massive turnout of Hispanic supporters in 2012. (Obama seeks 2012 victory via debt talks)

On July 7, White House senior aide David Plouffe said the president’s re-election campaign would win on a wave of votes from blacks and Hispanics. “We believe that we can improve over what we did in 2008 in turnout in some of those base Obama groups,” he told reporters at a breakfast organized by Bloomberg’s political news operation in Washington, D.C.

The Hispanic community is critical to the campaign, because it includes a large pool of potentially sympathetic new voters who could offset Obama’s low ratings of 38 percent among white voters and 39 percent among seniors.

Gallup’s poll of 15,344 adults showed that that task is getting increasingly difficult. “Real improvement in the U.S. economy, including lower unemployment, would go a long way toward restoring approval to 2009 levels,” said the poll. But job-creation practically stopped in May and June, as the formal unemployment rate edged up to 9.2 percent, and the underemployment rate reached 16.2 percent. Hispanic unemployment is at least 11.6 percent.

The Obama campaign is building an expensive network of campaign workers and volunteers to bring a wave of Hispanics to the ballot boxes in 2012, but they’re unlikely to greatly spur turnout, said Wes Anderson, a partner at the consulting firm OnMessage Inc., based Crofton, Md., who helped two Republican legislators win their 2010 races in heavily Hispanic Texas districts. A huge turnout “has never happened before and I don’t believe it will happen,” he said.

Obama is using the issue of immigration to build support among Hispanics. Although “rebuilding approval among Hispanics … could be an important element of Obama’s re-election strategy; however, he would need to do this while not further impairing his already tepid support among whites,” said the Gallup report.

The strain exists partly because of the political Hispanic/white divide over immigration and amnesty. When asked, most groups of Hispanics assign high importance to amnesty for Hispanics living in the United States. However, amnesty is strongly opposed by swing-voting whites and the president’s African-American supporters.

Obama has tried to balance these rival pressures. He has talked about immigration, but has not pressured Congress to pass an amnesty measure. Simultaneously, he has quietly used his regulatory authority to reduce deportations of illegal-immigrants that are younger or that have no criminal records, and has worked with the leaders of Hispanic ethnic-advocacy groups and with Spanish-language media to present himself as a Hispanic champion in Washington.

“Immigration is symbolic issue … but it ends up being very powerful,” said Matt Barreto, an analyst at Latino Decisions, which is a California-based polling firm that focuses on Hispanic voters. Democrats’ frequent demands more open immigration, and the sometimes-nasty GOP opposition, creates an emotional atmosphere that really boosts Hispanic turnout, he said. Hispanics “are ambivalent” about additional immigration, but share a sense of solidarity with other Hispanics in the United States, legal or not, he said.

For example, the union-backed group, “Mi Familia Vota,” which means “My Family Votes,” is registering Hispanics in Arizona and preparing them to vote by highlighting the state’s recent curbs on Hispanic studies and on illegal immigrants, Barreto said. “They are using those issue as mobilizing tool … [because some Hispanic parents] want their kids to at least understand the history of the South-West and about how it used to be part of Mexico,” he said.

Obama and allied groups have repeatedly tried to spur Hispanic solidarity around Obama, and to goad Republicans into making statement that alienate Hispanic voters, said Anderson. In a May speech beside the Texas-Mexico border, for example, Obama sarcastically suggested that Republicans would use an alligator-filled ditch to prevent Hispanics from crossing the border. Illinois Republican Joe Walsh immediately took the bait and issued a letter stating, “If it takes moats and alligators to secure our borders to get you to be serious, I’m game.”

Republicans can partly defuse the amnesty issue if they focus on economic issues and show their respect to Hispanic voters, Anderson said. Republican candidates also should talk about border security, because all voters have a common interest in reducing crime or drugs, he said. Successful candidates should say, said Anderson, that “We’ve got to figure out the [what to do about the] illegals, but let’s first secure the border.”

“What’s really important is the tone of the conversation,” he said.

Hispanics can recognize Obama’s manipulation of the immigration issue, said Leslie Sanchez, a Hispanic-outreach official for former President George W. Bush, and a board member of the GOP-affiliated polling firm, Resurgent Republic. “It is a dated approach to think you can only speak to the Hispanic community about immigration reform to earn their vote,” she said.

Obama’s talk about immigration, said Barreto, “doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to rush to the Democrats and the president, because the president has made repeated promises and nothing has been done.”

“People are scratching their heads,” he said.

Obama’s support among Latinos is also complicated by the tensions between Hispanic and black communities. This became visible in the Democrats’ 2008 primary races, when most Hispanic-subgroups supported Sen. Hillary Clinton more than then-Sen. Obama. In Texas, for example, Clinton outpolled Obama by 18 points among Hispanic men and 33 percent among Hispanic women, most of whom have roots in Mexico. Clinton also out-polled Obama in the Puerto Rican primary vote by 36 percent. Some Hispanics tell phone-surveyors, Anderson said, that Obama “‘is catering too much to blacks’ and if you’re picking that up on a survey, it’s out there.”

Democrats increasingly recognize they’ve got an uphill climb. Plouffe, for example, told the reporters at the Bloomberg event that “it’s going to be a very close, competitive election … a street fight for the presidency.”