The 2012 convention in Tampa will showcase the Republican Party's success electing Hispanics like never before, with high-profile speaking slots reserved for Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, and Senate candidate Ted Cruz of Texas.
If Cruz wins in November, the GOP will boast four Hispanics in top statewide offices. By contrast, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez is the only Hispanic Democrat who is a senator or governor.
Yet, off the Tampa convention stage, the Republican Party is losing ground with the fastest-growing part of the electorate. Mitt Romney is on track to do worse among Hispanic voters than any Republican nominee since Bob Dole in 1996. An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll released this week pegged Romney’s share of the Hispanic vote at 28 percent.
A Univision analysis that averaged 10 polls of Latino registered voters found Obama leads Romney 67 percent to 23 percent. Republican strategists believe Romney needs to take between 35 and 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to win.
Not only is Romney is less popular with Latinos than previous nominees John McCain, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, but he is far more hawkish on illegal immigration, complicating his outreach to the Hispanic community. The implications go far beyond the 2012 election, as a rapidly diversifying pool of voters spills into Republican-leaning states and complicates the GOP’s goal of majority rule.
“In the future, if Republicans do not do better among Hispanic voters, we are not going to be talking about how to get back Florida, we're going to be talking about how not to lose Texas,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who is not working for the Romney campaign.
Money is part of the problem. Romney has been outspent 7-to-1 in Spanish-language media by Obama and his allies, though the Republican ticket is expected to ramp up advertising after the convention when it can tap general-election donations. “No more hand signals,” promised a senior Romney adviser asked about its Spanish-media budget.
Democrats say it will be too little too late. Republicans hope they are wrong, pointing to President Obama’s failure to overhaul the nation’s dysfunctional immigration laws and a 10.3 percent unemployment rate among Hispanics that is 2 points higher than the national average.
“I still think there’s opportunity for Romney to gain ground,” said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative advocacy group. “The question is whether Hispanics are disappointed enough in the president’s broken promises to listen to Romney and consider voting for the Republican ticket.”
The Romney campaign sees the lineup of Hispanic speakers at the convention as a chance to lay the groundwork for more aggressive outreach in the fall. Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno has also been tapped to welcome Hispanic viewers into the fold.
“The Republican Party is very fortunate to have such proud, conservative Hispanic leaders who strongly support Governor Romney’s message and will play a central role in communicating it during the convention,” said Romney spokesman Danny Diaz, who helped Martinez get elected in New Mexico. “The Latino community urgently needs a change of direction.”
Rubio’s role at the convention is one of the most coveted — introducing the nominee on Thursday night. A number of prominent Republicans lobbied Romney to pick Rubio as his running mate, arguing that the telegenic, Cuban-American conservative would mobilize both the party faithful and undecided Hispanic voters in his must-win home state and nationwide.
Romney is currently scoring 11 points worse than McCain did in the 2008 election in Florida, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll. His 31 percent share of the Hispanic vote matches the national NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo survey.
Romney advisers say the campaign’s Spanish-language media budget has been limited so far because it could come only from primary donations. Romney has spent $965,000 on Spanish ads, while Obama has spent $4.34 million, according to a Democratic media tracker. A pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, and the Service Employees International Union have spent another $2.25 million. Their ads attacking Romney appear to be spreading negative impressions of him in a handful of Hispanic-heavy swing states that could decide the election.
Myers Research polls sponsored by Priorities and SEIU in July after three months of advertising found only 19 percent of those surveyed with favorable views of Romney in Colorado, while 64 percent held unfavorable views. His favorable/unfavorable numbers were only marginally better elsewhere: 22 percent to 54 percent in Nevada; 27 percent to 56 percent in Florida's Orlando area; and 29 percent to 48 percent in the Tampa market.
Several of the ads feature Romney’s remarks at a town hall meeting in Keene, N.H., on Aug. 24, 2011. “My own view is a lot of people just come here, walk across the border, that have no skill, no education and are looking for a free deal,” Romney said. The anti-Romney spots also assail him for backing Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigration and opposing the Dream Act, which would give legal status to young undocumented immigrants who attend college or serve in the military.
At a debate before the Florida primary in January, Romney awkwardly suggested “self-deportation” when asked what he would do about the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.
"Mitt Romney's own words have told the story of his extreme views on immigration,” said Priorities cofounder Bill Burton, a former White House spokesman. “After questioning the character of hardworking immigrants and proposing policies that would only benefit fellow millionaires, Romney has no one to blame but himself for his historically low performance with Hispanic voters."
There's still time for Romney to make up ground. Nine percent of the Hispanic voters in the NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll were undecided or preferred another candidate. Unlike the campaign’s early Spanish-language spots, which were translations of his English-language ads, Romney is now airing ads tailor-made for the Hispanic community.
“Can we allow for Democrats to continue fooling us?” asks the narrator in Spanish in one recent ad. “When Obama and his Democrat allies tell us ‘Yes, we can!’ We’ve got to tell them we no longer can.”
“You’re going to see a lot more from us. We’ll be going full blast,’’ said Jose Fuentes, a cochairman of Romney’s Hispanic Steering Committee. “I think the Romney-Ryan ticket is still a blank slate for a lot of Hispanics, and they need to feel that warmth from the campaign.”