Obama’s Hispanic support collapses: Can Rick Perry capitalize?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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President Obama’s Hispanic support has collapsed. He’s now below 50 percent for the first time ever. Should the trend continue, this fast-growing bloc of voters could help swing a close general election for Republicans (to put it in context, Obama won the presidency with 67 percent of Hispanic voters.)

Texas Governor Rick Perry is presumably best-positioned to exploit this. Exit polls demonstrate that he won 38 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas (which is considered to be very good for a Republican). But there’s just one problem — Perry is coming under incredible pressure from his opponents (and conservative opinion leaders) to change his position (or at least, rhetoric) on immigration.

At the heart of the controversy is the Texas version of the DREAM Act — which Perry signed as governor. It allowed young illegal immigrants in Texas to pay in-state college tuition. Perry was booed during Monday night’s debate when he attempted to defend the policy as a “states rights” issue. (He also opposes other ideas popular among some grassroots conservatives, including building a border wall.)

Perry has — so far — doubled-down on his controversial positions, presumably making the calculation that looking weak was worse than just taking his lumps. But — as was evidenced by the gang beating he endured during Monday night’s debate — attacks from the right are the most dangerous for Perry.

It would be a strategic mistake for him to underestimate the high level of intensity this hot-button issue arouses. (I think the issue is now more incendiary than abortion). For many activists, this is a “no compromise” issue; a hill to die on. And so, it is at least reasonable to assume Perry might begin to reevaluate his position. But while toughening his stance on the issue might have a salutary effect on his chances of winning a Republican primary, it might also have a negative impact on his ability to appeal to Hispanic voters in a general election.

(Note: I realize that Hispanics are not monolithic — and that many legal Hispanic immigrants deeply resent illegal immigration. But I also realize the general perception that Republicans are hostile to Hispanics has taken hold — aided sometimes by harsh Republican rhetoric — and that this has had a demonstrably negative electoral impact).

To be sure, serious policy decisions are too important to be based on electoral implications. But one cannot deny that policy decisions often do have political ramifications. And in that regard, Perry may be between a rock and a hard place: His immigration stance presumably helps Rick Perry win a general election; but it also hurts him in the primary.

Aside from Perry’s political future, it is at least worth considering the larger issues this raises. For example, do Republicans risk pushing away Hispanic voters — just at a time when they are growing disenchanted with Barack Obama?

Matt K. Lewis