CONTRIBUTORS

Romney’s Hispanic problem is serious

Posted March 12, 2012, at 9:56 p.m.

Two new polls of Latino voters confirm what I have been writing for several months: Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney is so unpopular among Hispanic voters that he would have a hard time winning the November elections.

A nationwide poll of likely Hispanic voters released last week by Fox News Latino shows that if the election were held today, 70 percent of Hispanics would vote for President Barack Obama, while 14 percent would vote for Romney. The poll, conducted by telephone, has a margin of error of 2.7 percent.

A previous poll of registered Latino voters nationwide released Jan. 24 by the Univision television network shows that Obama’s approval rate among Hispanics is of 63 percent, compared with Romney’s 28 percent. The Univision poll’s margin of error is of 4.4 percent.

Not surprisingly, both polls show that Latinos are uneasy about the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by Romney — and, to be fair, by the other leading Republican presidential hopefuls as well — during the Republican primaries.

Romney has enthusiastically supported Arizona’s draconian anti-immigration law, which many Latinos fear will lead local police to harass Hispanics regardless of their immigration status. Romney has also said he would veto the DREAM act, a bill that would give a path to legal residence to Latinos who were brought to the country at a young age and are in college or in the armed forces.

According to the Fox News Latino poll, 90 percent of Hispanic U.S. citizens support the DREAM Act, and 80 percent would like to see undocumented immigrants have a chance to legalize their status.

When I asked Republican strategists whether the latest Fox News Latino poll proves that Romney would face an uphill battle to win the November election, they made three basic counterarguments.

—First, the poll is not very significant in electoral terms, because most of those surveyed are Hispanics from Western states, which tend to vote overwhelmingly Democrat anyway. What will really count in November will be the Hispanic vote in swing states, such as Florida, Arizona and Colorado, several Republican strategists told me.

“Governor Romney has done well in states with large Hispanic populations, such as Nevada, Arizona and Florida,” Romney spokesman Alberto Martinez told me. “As his vision on creating jobs and rebuilding the economy is compared to Barack Obama’s abysmal record of the past three years, Gov. Romney will continue to be successful among Hispanics nationally.”

Romney won 3 percent of the Hispanic vote in Arizona’s recent primary, compared to 24 percent for Republican rival Rick Santorum. In Florida, Romney won 54 percent of the Hispanic vote compared to 29 percent for Santorum, according to CNN exit polls.

—Second, all polls agree that the most pressing issues for Hispanics are jobs and the economy. That’s what will really count on Election Day, much more than immigration or other issues, they say.

—Third, many Latino Democrats may stay at home on Election Day because they are disenchanted by the president’s record on the economy, his failure to deliver on immigration reform, and the record number of Hispanics deported during his term. That can badly hurt Obama on Election Day, Republican strategists say.

A recent Pew Hispanic Center poll showed that Obama’s approval rate among Latinos has dropped from 58 percent in 2010 to 49 percent in 2011.

My opinion: Romney has a huge Latino vote problem. He will most likely try to overcome it by appointing a Latino politician — Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, for instance — as his running mate. He may also go for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a fluent Spanish speaker who is married to a Mexican.

But even with a Latino or a fluent Spanish-speaker on his ticket, Romney would have a hard time winning the 40 percent of the Latino vote pollsters say he would need to win the election. In his quest for support from the extreme right of his party, he has alienated most Hispanics.

Granted, Romney could make a big rhetorical U-turn on immigration issues after winning the Republican nomination, but I doubt that would be enough.

He will have to also change his stands on the Arizona law, the DREAM Act and other issues that are dear to Hispanics. Otherwise, as shown by the dismal 14 percent support among Latinos in the latest poll, he will be seen as the anti-Latino candidate, and will lose the November election.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.

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