The Change in the Latino Vote

Once thought of as natural Republicans, Barack Obama captured the hearts of Latinos in the last US election. But the words 'American Dream' are no longer enough, they want help to achieve it. In the run up to the 2012 election, Francesa Peak argues that Obama is by no means the obvious choice for Latinos. Whether Romney cares enough about their vote is another question.
Francesca Peak

In the 2008 US election, Barack Obama made history not only by becoming first black President, but by winning the Latino electorate with a ratio of two-to-one over John McCain. However, that was 2008, when the image of bringing together the country, including its many minorities, and uniting them under the powerful ‘Yes we can’ campaign of hope, elevated a Bush-weary public. Since then, with promises broken and unfulfilled, there are no doubt opportunities to seize it back, but has Mitt Romney seized them? Does he want to, or even need to?

Hispanics constitute 16.7% of the population, of which approximately 60% are registered voters, not that significant you may think, yet Hispanics are a rapidly increasing and extremely influential minority, potentially more politically significant than black Americans. It is estimated that about 30% of the American population will be Hispanic by 2050 and they all have one key issue on their minds – immigration. No other issue (second is the economy, third is health) unites Latino voters from all backgrounds and all areas of the country. This is why Romney’s immigration policies have been put in the spotlight, especially in light of recent news that Obama leads Romney in Hispanic votes by 40%.

So what exactly is Romney’s position on immigration? His stance on the DREAM Act (which would provide conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented residents of good moral character) has changed several times over the past few years, and his scheme to encourage ‘self-deportation’ to reduce the 12 million illegal immigrants in the USA didn’t go down too well. Many Latino voters are unaware of Romney’s fundamental immigration policies, despite Romney having allegedly committed more time to Hispanic voters than any other Republican candidate in history.

The change in the Latino voice

In the impoverished Latino community of San Juan,Texas, I asked some of the residents about their thoughts on Obama’s policies and what they wanted from the 2012 candidates. Juanita came to the USA in 2010 from Guatemala, has since held eleven jobs and currently works at the local supermarket. She told me, “ My husband has a degree in engineering, but it’s been impossible to find a job matching his qualifications. I’d like to see more effective job legislation and protection for Hispanic employees, especially with small businesses. Unless Romney  can come up with an employment plan for us, I’ll be voting for Obama in the next election.”

Another San Juan resident, Antonio, immigrated last year and has set up his own car garage and workshop. “Business is good,” he says. “but our living conditions are terrible, with a total lack of sewage and street lighting in the colonia. Parents don’t wanna let their children out alone at night. I’d like Obama to increase protection and social services for immigrants who want to feel safe and accepted in the United States.”

If Romney's leaked controversial comments are anything to go by, he might write Antonio off as someone who expected services from governemnt and therefore wouldn't vote Republican anyway. And yet Romney portrays the Republican Party as the natural home of America’s Hispanic population, as the party of hope, dreams and opportunity. While this might have had more appeal in the Reagan years, when these words were enough to ignite the fantasies of fresh faced immigrants, many Hispanics now feel that it's not dreams they need but government action and support to help achieve them, ranging from basic sanitation, street lighting, legalisation of papers and statuses and assistance with finding work.

As Eva Longoria, star of Desperate Housewives told the Democratic Natioanl Convention, “Let me tell you something, the Eva Longoria who worked at Wendy’s flipping burgers, she needed a tax break. But the Eva Longoria who works on movie sets does not.” Longoria represents the shift in Hispanic community in the sense that the more confident it has become in its identity and achievements, the less you can buy it with simply the dream of a dream.

Immigration and the problem with Mitt

While many Americans see the control of immigration as important, for Hispanics it is more important that the government support those who have already made America their home, and give them a chance to survive and flourish.

Whilst Obama has been heavily criticised for not bringing to fruition the immigration measures he promised in his 2008 election, evidence points to the Hispanic population having little to hope for if they vote Republican. As Governor, Romney vetoed in-state tuition benefits and driving licences for illegal immigrants, and states he will build a ‘high-tech fence’, in other words an electric fence, on the southwest American border. Romney does not seem to have a coherent plan for domestic illegal and legal Hispanic immigrants, let alone controlling immigration from Latin America, which is only due to rise. His plans for economic recovery and health plans are of course important, but in order to win the Latino vote, a strategy to deal with the squalid living conditions of the thousands of immigrants in America is badly needed. This has been largely overlooked by candidates in the past, and something any Obama opponent would benefit from addressing. However, Romney’s recent gaffes haven’t shown him to be that opponent.

From Romney’s mixed signals it’s unclear whether he feels he needs the Latino vote or not. At a Univision forum two weeks ago Romney gave only 35 minutes to the forum, whereas Obama gave an hour; Romney allegedly filled the studio with Republican activists, rather than keeping tickets mainly for students. A rumour that he ‘dyed his face brown’ to appeal to Latino voters is both hilarious and absurd. Romney has been quoted as saying ‘it would be helpful to be Latino’ to win the election – the list goes on. Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington, claims that these comments ‘have only deepened the sense that Romney cannot relate to the concerns and struggles of ordinary Americans, including Latinos.’

So how important is the Latino vote?

The Latino vote is now at a record high with 24 million voters and, while still 11% of the electorate, analysts cite that if Republicans make no ground on the Latino vote nationally, it could risk the key states needed to win the election. The Latino vote is important tactically because states that have some of the highest percentages of Latino voters in the country – New Mexico, Florida, California, Colorado, Nevada and Texas – are hugely important in the election.  Remember George Bush’s ‘dodgy’ election victory over Al Gore? That was decided in Florida, home to one of America’s biggest Latino votes.

This may explain the presence of both Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan and Democratic San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro up and down Florida over the past fortnight. And perhaps it explains why on Tuesday, after much silence, Mitt Romney finally vowed to respect Obama’s deferred action policy, which allows undocumented immigrants who came to the US before the age of 16 to get employment authorizations and social security. One Latino voter posting on the Huffungton Post said however. "At this point in the Presidential campaign, what else can candidate Romney say? Romney is finally realizing he just might need the votes of those constituents he has been either insulting or ignoring."

The most recent impreMedia-Latino Decision tracking poll shows Obama pulling even further ahead of Romney with Latino voters, 73% of which claim they will vote for Obama, in comparison to 21% for Romney. However, the opportunity is there for Romney: in ten battleground states, Obama’s percentage reduces to 61%, whereas 33% of Latinos in swing states plan to vote Republican. This slight shift towards the Republicans, in comparison to four years ago, can be attributed to what many see as several unfulfilled Obama policies which has led to the search for an alternative.

Whether it is arrogance, oversight, carelessness or simply being ‘out of touch’ Romney has made some political errors during his campaign which may well cost him the opportunity that is there for taking in the Hispanic vote, along with other minority votes. He needs to get inventive – and quick - if he wants to claw it back. If not, the question is will Romney live to regret it?