The Latino vote is critical well beyond Nevada. The Hispanic population tops 20 percent in the key swing states of Colorado and Florida, and is a burgeoning force in some Southern states such as North Carolina and Virginia. Even Iowa, long the subject of complaints about its lack of diversity and its central role in the presidential nominating gantlet, saw its Latino population boom 84 percent in the past decade (still only 5 percent of the population).
Romney’s personal unpopularity among Latinos is partly attributable to the hard-line immigration stance he took during the GOP primary season. It was one of the few issues on which Romney could lap the field from the right, and he seized the opportunity, especially during the fleeting moments that Texas Gov. Rick Perry appeared to be a formidable foe; that’s when Romney memorably embraced a doctrine of “self-deportation.”
The issue has had a spillover effect. In the NBC poll, Latinos said that Obama would handle every major policy area better than Romney, including the economy, by at least a 2-1 advantage.
Romney is working to close the gap in the state. His campaign has hired a Nevada Hispanic outreach director, which it says is a GOP first. Romney’s son Craig has cut Spanish-language ads that feature a fact that the candidate himself rarely mentions on the trail: Mitt Romney’s father was born in Mexico. The campaign has dispatched its highest profile Latino surrogates to the state, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Bush Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.
HIDING THE BALL
Given Romney’s stance on the Dream Act and his tough rhetoric on immigration, his campaign has focused its communications to Latinos (and almost every other demographic) on a one-size-fits-all message on the economy.
“Jobs and the economy—it trumps everything,” said Ryan Erwin, a GOP strategist and top Romney adviser in the state. “You can’t walk through a grocery store or a small business without hearing people talking about the economy. It is a pretty narrow focus if anyone thinks Hispanic voters aren’t caring about the economy as much as anyone else.”
The Obama campaign is doing everything it can to undercut Romney’s credibility as the potential fiscal fixer-in-chief. A barrage of TV ads, in English and Spanish, has questioned Romney’s character, portraying him as an out-of-touch millionaire with offshore bank accounts who can’t relate to their financial woes. Romney’s plans for a car elevator at his La Jolla, Calif., beach house, his wife’s “couple of Cadillacs,” and his friendship with NASCAR team owners have helped the Obama cause. “That has a real resonance in a state that’s been hit as hard as we have,” said Zac Petkanas, a senior strategist for the Nevada state Democratic Party.
The party has recent practice in demonizing the opposition to distract from a tepid economy. In 2010, unpopular Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stood for reelection amid an even worse economic climate. The Democrat won by casting his GOP opponent, tea partier Sharron Angle, as an extremist who couldn’t be trusted. Romney, calm and cool in his second presidential bid, is a far more difficult mark. But the strategy is much the same.
In the La Raza speech, Biden skewered Romney for his Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Island cash stashes, and hidden tax returns. Then, in a single line, he linked Arizona’s controversial immigration law and Romney’s shrouded personal finances.
“He wants you to show your papers, but he won’t show us his,” Biden said. The crowd thundered its approval.
Republicans say that Team Obama is simply trying to divert attention from the economy, especially among Latinos. “They cannot run on their record,” said Hector Barreto, a former Bush administration official and now the cochairman of Juntos con Romney, the campaign’s Hispanic-outreach effort. “They know it, and we know it.”
(The Romney operation had hoped that Carlos Gutierrez, the former Bush Commerce secretary, could make a rebuttal speech at the four-day conference, but La Raza turned him down, saying that the request came too late. Instead of a spot at the podium, Gutierrez and Barreto were relegated to the hallways.)
Republicans complain that the president’s June policy decree, which could allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children to stay and work without fear of deportation, is crass political pandering.
“Pigeonholing Latino voters into focusing entirely on immigration is an insult,” said Pete Ernaut, an influential GOP strategist in the state.
But it appears to be working. The July NBC poll gave Obama a 44-point lead among Latino registered voters nationally, 67 percent to 23 percent.
With less than three months until the election, neither Romney nor Obama has skated a flawless performance in Nevada.