Florida’s presidential primary next week is a crucial test of Mitt Romney’s front-runner status. But dive into the exit polls after voters have spoken their minds, because Florida will be a test of Romney’s strength among Hispanic voters—a relationship that could put him back on the road to the nomination or foretell his defeat in November.
Florida is one of the few states in which Hispanic voters will play a big role in the Republican primaries. About 12 percent of the 2008 Republican electorate, or 250,000 voters, were Hispanic. Although Romney actually beat Sen. John McCain among white voters, 34 percent to 33 percent, he got thumped among Hispanics. McCain won 54 percent of the Hispanic vote, and another 24 percent went to Rudy Giuliani; Romney got just 14 percent.
Romney has aggressively courted Hispanic voters with bilingual mail pieces and two Spanish-language radio spots. A Spanish-language television ad featuring Romney’s son Craig, who did missionary work in Chile, has been running for three weeks. (Newt Gingrich is competing for the same vote, accusing Romney of being anti-immigrant in a new radio ad.)
Hispanic GOP primary voters “are looking for who is the candidate who can beat Barack Obama and who is the candidate who can genuinely turn around the economy,” said Ana Carbonell, Romney’s Florida spokeswoman.
Romney has avoided extreme conservative stands from which he would have to backpedal after winning the primaries. But that’s not true on immigration, an issue on which his rhetoric has been among the most aggressive in the Republican field.
Rick Perry took heat for supporting Texas’s version of the Dream Act, and Gingrich came under fire for suggesting it is unrealistic to send back illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for decades. Romney—who pledged to veto the Dream Act if it passes and said repeatedly he does not support amnesty—has shown no softening. His purity is an asset in a Republican primary, but it’s likely a liability in a general election, when he would have to win over Hispanic votes in order to be competitive in key swing states.
“Romney needs to tone down immigration rhetoric, and he needs to show some ability to connect with everyday Joses and Josefinas,” said Ana Navarro, a Florida Republican strategist who helped Jon Huntsman’s campaign this year.
Polls show that Hispanic voters largely view the Republican Party as keeping them at arms’ length, at best—or hostile, at worst. The economy is their biggest concern, but many Hispanics won’t be open to a party’s message if they view the messenger as inherently hostile.
“Like every other American, Hispanics are most worried about economy, national security, education. But immigration is a litmus-test issue. If you cross the line into sounding anti-immigrant or anti-Hispanic, Latinos tune out,” Navarro added.
The threat to the GOP could hardly be clearer: In 2004, George W. Bush won 44 percent of all Hispanic voters. By 2008, McCain scored just 31 percent among Hispanics. Even in 2010, a strong year for the GOP, exit polls show the party earned just 38 percent of the Hispanic vote. In a poll conducted by impreMedia and Latino Decisions in December, just 20 percent of Hispanics said they are certain to vote or leaning toward voting for the eventual Republican presidential nominee; a more recent Latino Decisions poll, released on Wednesday, showed President Obama leading Romney by a more encouraging 54 percent to 40 percent among Hispanics.
If GOP rhetoric continues to drive Hispanic voters into the Democratic fold, some Republicans believe they could end up as solidly in the Democratic camp as African-Americans. Given the booming growth rate among Hispanics, that prospect keeps some party strategists up at night.
“It is simply unarguable that in the future, you’re going to have far larger proportions of minority groups of all sorts, but especially Latino voters,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres told me in 2010. “If Republicans don’t figure out how to do better among Hispanic voters, we’re not going to be talking about how to get Florida back among the mega-states in a presidential election; we’re going to be talking about how not to lose Texas.”
Romney’s campaign acknowledges his outreach to Hispanics in Florida has encountered some push-back from voters concerned about his position on the Dream Act. But the campaign points to encouraging numbers: A Quinnipiac University survey, conducted Jan. 4-8, shows Romney statistically tied with Obama among Hispanic voters in Florida. Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio, both Republicans, won a majority of Hispanic votes in 2010, according to exit polls.
“They might disagree on a position regarding the Dream Act, but at the end of the day, they think he’s the strongest one in terms of getting the economy going,” Carbonell said. “If we can’t get our economy going, then we can’t have a debate, we can’t prioritize what we need to do with immigration.”
If Romney pulls off a Florida victory, he will be much closer to securing the party’s nomination. But his team will find the exit poll results a revealing early hint as to whether Romney is the right Republican to stop his party’s slide among Hispanic voters—or whether the GOP’s frosty relationship with them has frozen over for good.
This article appears in the January 26, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.