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Nancy Smith

Can the GOP Lose the Latino Vote and Still Win the White House?

January 15, 2012 - 6:00pm

The folks you see out there yahooing and happy dancing and sending up fireworks -- figuratively speaking, anyway -- are probably Democrats.

Dems spent a large chunk of last week predicting doom for front-runner Mitt Romney and virtually the whole of the GOP presidential field for taking a tough stance on immigration. They claim Republicans are digging a deep hole for themselves with Latinos.

"He'll be lucky to get 8 percent of the Hispanic vote," said DeeDee Blase, founder of Somos Republicans in Arizona.

Blase was speaking of Romney, who had just delivered the double whammy -- first saying he would veto legislation that creates a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, then accepting the endorsement of strident anti-immigration activist Kris Kobach.

Kobach is Kansas' controversial secretary of state and author of immigration law in South Carolina and Arizona, law that its critics call the "show me your papers" statute.

How damaging is the GOP presidential candidates' hard line on immigration? Is it likely to cost the Republicans dearly in November?

It depends who you listen to.

David Leopold, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, admits the GOP will get a boost in South Carolina from its candidates' tough anti-immigration talk. But, he says, if Romney or a candidate like him wins the nomination, Latinos and the party could split irreconcilably for a long time to come.

"Anti-immigration agendas have rarely served American politicians well," says Leopold. "Just ask former California Governor Pete Wilson, former U.S. Representative J.D. Hayworth, and former U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo.

"That's because, as the polls show, Americans are a compassionate people. They want the broken immigration system fixed, and a humane solution, including a pathway to legal status, for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country. The mass deportation 'cattle car' approach ... is neither feasible nor humane."

On the other hand, Cal Marshland, retired professor of political science at the University of California, told Sunshine State News that Republicans have nothing to worry about if they choose to act on immigration with strength and determination. Polls have shown that voters as a whole want the immigration problem put right, he says. They want the laws already on the books enforced, period.

"The fact is, Latinos just don't affect elections in America as you might think. In pockets, yes. But the Latino share of the electorate has actually remained stagnant for much of the past decade," Marshland claims.

"In 2004, Latino voters comprised 8.24 percent of the electorate. In 2006, they were 7.94 percent of the electorate. In 2008, they were 8.38 percent and in 2010, they were once again around 8 percent.

"In other words, for a variety of reasons, the surge in Latino population has not translated into a surge in Latino voting power (and remember, there was a huge registration and get-out-the-vote drive in 2008 among Latinos, both in the primaries and the general election)."

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, is convinced that to win in 2012, he will need a heavy turnout from his base and a repeat level of support from the Latino voters.

Observes Alexandra Fitzpatrick, a Washington, D.C.-based GOP consultant, "In 2008, Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote, while Senator John McCain only captured 31 percent. Since taking office, Obamas approval has plummeted among Latinos, losing as much as 30 percent since 2009."

No wonder. Immigration is also a weak spot for Obama ahead of the November election. He made a campaign pledge to overhaul the immigration system and neither he nor his administration has raised a finger. His answer so far has been to blame the problem on lack of cooperation from Republicans in Congress. But that rings hollow, considering he recorded 400,000 deportations last year -- a record number.

The 2012 election, Fitzpatrick says, will be about margins -- small margins. An August 2011 Gallup Poll showed that as many as 12 states are in play. And a core group of them, many with significant Latino populations, will likely be too close to call until the final hour. Some of these swing states:

  • Florida (29 electoral votes) 15 percent of eligible voters are Latino.
  • Arizona (11 electoral votes) 18 percent of eligible voters are Latino.
  • Nevada (6 electoral votes) 14 percent of eligible voters are Latino.
  • New Mexico (5 electoral votes) 38 percent of eligible voters are Latino.
  • Colorado (9 electoral votes) 13 percent of eligible voters are Latino.

The question Republican leaders are asking on this matter, and rightly so, is why would they want to risk their elephant becoming a dinosaur? It could happen.

By 2050 the government projects Latinos/Hispanics will double their size, boost their clout and account for some 30 percent of the population. Politically, Latinos tilt Democratic, meaning the Republican Party is looking at a threat down the road. The party really does have to find a way "in." It has to connect with this politically pivotal group now.

Without forcing party philosophy down the candidates' throats, the Republican National Committee last week unveiled a plan to win over Latinos.

National Party Chairman Reince Priebus announced that the RNC has hired Bettina Inclan as director of Hispanic outreach.

Bringing Inclan on board means the party will step up its effort to connect with the Latino/Hispanic community. It will include digital outreach, traditional voter identification and a sizable get-out-the-vote effort.

In those key swing states, Priebus said, the party will put teams on the ground. Sen. Marco Rubio will lead Florida's team.

The economy remains the major issue in this election cycle among Latinos, as it is among most Americans. Yet, connecting with this group is far more complex than a single issue; its about creating a respectful dialogue, especially on immigration.

Maybe the GOP can win the White House without Latinos on its side. But why would it want to take the risk?

Reach Nancy Smith at or at (850) 727-0859.

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