If presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s first major speech to a Hispanic audience in this campaign was an indication of his strategy to win over Latino voters, he is in big trouble.
During his May 23 speech to the Latino Coalition, a group of Hispanic small businesses owners, Romney didn’t mention even once the word “immigration,” according to his prepared remarks published by The Washington Post’s website. Instead, he devoted his entire speech to his plans to revive the U.S. economy and improve U.S. education standards.
After the speech, Democratic strategists noted that Romney — who clinched the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday after winning the Texas primary — is trying to sidestep the hard-line immigration stands that he took during the primaries. In his quest for conservative Republican votes, Romney alienated many Hispanics by enthusiastically backing Arizona’s draconian immigration law, and by calling for the “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants.” Many Latinos interpret that as making the life of undocumented Hispanic immigrants impossible until they leave the country on their own, which some fear could lead to harassment of all Hispanics regardless of their legal status.
In addition, Romney has opposed the Dream Act, an Obama administration-backed bill that would give a path to large numbers of undocumented college students who were brought to the country as infants by their parents, and who grew up as Americans.
According to a new national NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll of Latino voters, 61 percent of Hispanics plan to vote for Obama in November, while only 27 percent plan to vote for Romney. By comparison, former Republican candidate Sen. John McCain won 31 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2008 election, and former President George W. Bush won 40 percent in 2004.
Most Romney advisers seem to believe that Romney can win in November by sticking to his anti-immigration rhetoric when speaking to conservative audiences, and focusing on the economy and education when speaking to Latino audiences.
They say that nationwide polls of Hispanic voters, such as the new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo one, don’t mean anything because they are heavily influenced by the huge Hispanic populations in California and New York, which vote Democratic anyway. What matters are the polls in battleground states, such as Florida and Arizona, and Romney is doing well in those states, they say.
Asked whether Romney will ignore the immigration issue, Romney campaign spokesman Alberto Martinez told me that “Hispanics do not vote based solely on the issue of immigration. Poll after poll indicates that jobs and the economy will be the most important issue for Hispanic voters come November.”
Martinez added, “Like all Americans, Hispanics will cast their vote for president based on their perception of who is best suited to turning the economy around and creating jobs, which is why we’re confident that Governor Romney will attract considerable support.”
In addition to focusing on the economy, pro-Romney Super PACS will most likely try to weaken the Latino support for Obama in swing states by running TV ads blasting Obama for deporting record numbers of undocumented Latinos, and for not meeting his campaign promise to pass a comprehensive immigration law. Thus, Republican strategists hope to sway many pro-Obama Hispanics to stay at home on Election Day, Democratic strategists say.
My opinion: If elections were decided by purely rational reasons and could be predicted with cold calculations on what issues matter the most to voters, Romney could indeed win this election. Polls show that Hispanic voters care more about the economy, jobs and education, than about immigration.
But elections are most often decided by emotional factors, and the fact is that Romney has alienated many Hispanics with a dehumanizing rhetoric against “illegals” that to many of us comes across as Latino-bashing.
Most Latinos don’t buy Romney’s claim that he is a strong supporter of “legal” immigration and only opposes “illegal” immigration, because that’s a deceiving argument. Under the current system, it’s very hard for foreigners to become legal U.S. residents, and Romney has opposed a comprehensive immigration reform that would increase the number of resident visas to match the needs of the U.S. labor market.
Romney’s ignore-immigration strategy to win over Hispanics won’t work. He will need an urgent image remake to come across as more simpático to Latinos, and he can only do that by softening his harsh stands on immigration issues.