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What’s Behind the GOP’s Continuing Trouble Wooing Latino Voters?

When it comes to identity politics, the Obama White House’s “war on women” has dominated the conversation. But the significance of the women’s vote, in terms of demographics, is still generally overshadowed by the minority/white vote split. As Ronald Brownstein writes, President Obama needs about an 80/40 distribution to win reelection: 80 percent of minorities and 40 percent of white voters. And as Ruy Teixeira notes here, the Hispanic share of the vote has grown since the 2008 presidential election. Which is why polls showing a massive Latino preference for the Democratic ticket have Republicans nervous about more than just this one election.

But outreach to the Latino community presents its own problems. First of all, Republicans, and especially conservatives, are comfortable with identity politics when it comes to cultural divides and religious issues, but exceedingly uncomfortable when it comes to race or ethnicity. But more importantly, the GOP’s ability to attract Latino voters on the issues is often overstated, and presents something of a mirage. Take this recent poll of Latino voters, released about a week ago. It shows Obama getting 73 percent of the Latino vote, not because of immigration (an issue in which Obama has almost no interest), but because of the economy–exactly where Republicans thought they could make gains:

On many issues, a large percentage of Latino voters feel it makes no difference whether Obama or Romney wins.  For example, regarding the prospect of immigration reform, while 52% think chances are better under an Obama presidency, 37% of Latino voters say it makes no difference if Obama wins, the prospects will not change. Regarding the degree of compromise and cooperation in the Congress, 45% of Latino voters say a second Obama term would not improve cooperation in Congress, and 43% a Romney presidency would make no difference….

For the ten weeks the impreMedia-Latino Decisions poll has been taken the most important issue for Latinos consistently has been the economy and the latest release revealed that Romney and the Republican party have been unable to convince Latino voters that they will be better at improving the it.  Seventy-three percent of Latino voters trust Obama and the Democrats to make the right decisions to improve the economy compared to only 18% that trust Romney and the Republicans.

Those are easy numbers to interpret: 73 percent trust Obama on the economy, and 73 percent say they’re voting for Obama. Republicans are right that the economy is an important–sometimes the most important–issue to Latino voters, just as it is to most of the country, especially at a time of high unemployment.

This poses a challenge to Republican “outreach” to Hispanic voters. There is almost surely some ground to make up by taking a more welcoming stance on immigration, such as the one that hurt Rick Perry in the Republican primary debates. Perry’s position, and that of many Republicans, has the advantage of also being the stronger economic argument as well. And whatever a particular politician’s stance on immigration, much of the harsh rhetoric about immigration is gratuitous and counterproductive anyway–a nation of immigrants likes to think of itself that way, and immigrants and their descendants often want to keep the door open behind them for others as well.

But outside of immigration, the GOP has more of an uphill climb with Latino voters than many of those advocating better outreach seem willing to admit. The social conservatism of Latino immigrants, like the social conservatism of many in the black community, does not seem to motivate them to pull the lever for the Republican Party candidates. The economy, then, would seem to be the logical issue on which to conduct this outreach. After all, many immigrants came to this country for economic opportunity to begin with, and as immigrant communities become more settled and economically successful, they often vote more conservatively as well. (The Jewish community is, of course, the exception that proves the rule.)

While I imagine having conservative proponents of the right’s economic opportunity agenda, like the extraordinarily charismatic Susana Martinez, would help get that message across, right now Latino voters simply prefer the left’s economic programs. Again, one could argue that this immigrant group will, like the others, move rightward over time. And of course the outreach to Latino voters makes sense anyway. But for those who argue that the GOP’s outreach this cycle has been severely lacking, the question arises: Excluding immigration, what else could have been done to sway the vote? Polling seems to suggest an answer conservatives probably don’t want to hear.


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