Obama trumps Romney with Hispanics

Posted: June 25, 2012

Republicans haven't quite mastered the task of communicating with Hispanics, a big problem that could sink Mitt Romney in a close election. Here's a tiny example:

In October, the Republican National Committee created a website geared exclusively toward Hispanics and topped the home page with a photo of smiling kids who looked Hispanic. The site was long overdue — after all, Hispanics are the fastest-growing cohort in the electorate and potentially hold sway in a slew of swing states — but, as it turned out, there was a graphics glitch: The kids in the picture weren't Hispanic. The GOP went online, found the stock photo, and posted it without reading the tags — which clearly indicated that the kids were Asian.

Apparently, the party couldn't be bothered with finding actual Hispanic kids and hiring its own photographer. Asian, Hispanic ... what's the difference? The racial misfire stayed on the website for eight months, until the news media outed the error. But it probably didn't much damage the GOP's standing with Hispanics anyway, because the systemic damage has already been done.

Romney knows he has a problem; as he recently told an audience of donors, "We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party," because the prevailing anti-Republican sentiment in that community "spells doom for us." He's currently trailing President Obama among Hispanics by 35 to 40 percentage points, and, in a photo finish election, that kind of deficit could doom him in at least five swing states: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia.

All five had long been reliable Republican states — until 2008, when Hispanic voters helped put Obama over the top. Those five states account for 20 percent of the nationwide Hispanic population growth during the last decade. A wide swath of Republicans, led by Karl Rove and Jeb Bush, have warned for years that the party needed to ditch its increasingly intolerant tone and reach out to these people of color, lest the GOP wind up in the predicament it finds itself in today.

Romney embodies that predicament. He's locked into the intolerance demanded by the conservative base, and, thanks to his fealty, he's ill-positioned to reach out.

In full pander mode during the primaries, he touted the idea of making life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they would "self-deport." He even said that as president he would veto the long-obstructed DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for the young, law-abiding children of undocumented immigrants.

No wonder Romney is tanking among Hispanic voters. Even though the economy is the top issue for Hispanics — the 11 percent Hispanic jobless rate is nearly three points above the national average — the immigration issue is very personal in that community. Most Hispanic citizens have friends and family members who aspire to be citizens. When Republicans continue to speak the language of intolerance, Hispanic Americans feel unwanted.

Enter Obama, who has boxed in Romney so badly that Romney has yet to find a way out.

On June 15, Obama issued a directive that would make it far easier for the children of undocumented immigrants to get work authorization and stay in the United States. Under the new policy, they need not fear deportation if they arrived before the age of 16, if they're younger than 30, if they graduated from high school or served in the military, and if they have clean records. In one stroke, Obama stoked more Hispanic fervor for his candidacy — a new national poll shows that 49 percent of Hispanics are now more enthusiastic, while only 14 percent feel less enthusiastic — and put Romney on the defensive.

Moreover, polls showed landslide majority support, within the general electorate, for Obama's directive. So, the big question: Would Romney, as president, repeal this tolerant policy? If he said "yes," he'd please his conservative base, but tick off the swing voters. If he said "no," he'd tick off his base and please the swings. The upshot is, he won't answer the question. He bobbed and weaved four times on a Sunday news show, and he dodged it again Thursday while addressing a Hispanic convention in Florida.

He tried this sleight of hand: "The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure."

Here's a tip: When a Republican politician promises a "long-term solution" to illegal immigration, it's code for continuing to do nothing. Recent history tells the tale.

Back in 2001, the first DREAM Act was introduced in the Senate — by Republicans. But as the conservative base grew more intolerant during the decade, the Republicans dutifully bailed. The flip-flop climaxed in December 2010, when 55 senators voted yes for the DREAM Act — but it died anyway, thanks to the GOP's obstruction via filibuster.

So the GOP abandoned its own long-term solution. And this year, when Florida Sen. Marco Rubio offered to draft a softer DREAM Act, in the hope that his party brethren would sign on, they didn't. Romney merely said he would "study" Rubio's idea. The result? Obama trumped their passivity by actually doing something. Obama has often frustrated Hispanics by not doing enough, but, compared to Romney, Obama looks like a cross between Cesar Chavez and Simon Bolivar.

This is why Romney could be seriously imperiled in the aforementioned swing states, plus Iowa and New Mexico. He can't say he wasn't warned. During the long Republican debate season, Floridian Jeb Bush said: "Hispanic voters hear these debates ... and get turned off. From a practical point of view, it makes no sense to me that we are sending these signals."

But if Bush had said such things on a debate stage, he would've been booed. That says it all.

Dick Polman can be reached at dickpolman7@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @dickpolman1.

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