Last week, as part of a more robust Spanish advertising campaign launched after the GOP national convention, Romney began airing an ad that promised “to achieve permanent solutions for undocumented youth.” Starring in Romney’s other Spanish ads are popular Hispanic figures such as Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuno and Rubio, who is Cuban-American.
Whether Romney’s outreach is too little, too late will become clear on Nov. 6. The Hispanic vote could be determinative in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and other toss-up states, and it will shape the outcome in battlegrounds with much smaller but growing Spanish-speaking populations, including North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In Ohio, the state that could turn the entire election, Hispanic voters make up only 2 percent of the electorate. But both campaigns, as well as two pro-Obama groups, have aired Spanish-language ads there.
“President Obama’s first campaign was savvy to the growth of Hispanic voters in states that weren’t on the radar before, and the Romney campaign has also showed an understanding of that this cycle,” said Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a center-right advocacy group.
FEELING LIKE OUTSIDERS
Not far from the bright lights and colors of Epcot, Disney World’s international theme park, is a more sprawling and less sanitized Latin American community. Even the white, non-Hispanic politicians have campaign billboards in Spanish here. Latin music is all over FM radio; basic foodstuffs from the island, such as plantains, yucca, and mango, are abundant in grocery stores.
Lunching one afternoon at Puerto Rico’s Café with her family, 40-year-old Jessica Smith recalled the thrill she felt helping to elect the first African-American president in 2008. Many Hispanics with ties abroad felt a kinship with Obama, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. “I thought he was going to change everything,” Smith said. “Obviously, that was not the case.”
“The state of the economy, it’s not getting any better,” said Eddie Burgos, a 37-year-old financial adviser, sitting at a table nearby. “I’m more optimistic about what Romney can do to turn things around. I don’t want more of the same.”
Smith, a Christian who homeschools her two children, was particularly disappointed when Obama came out in favor of gay marriage (although a recent Pew Research Center poll found that Hispanic support for same-sex marriage has risen substantially). Yet Smith is reluctant to commit to Romney. Why? “He and his party act like they want nothing to do with Hispanics and immigration,” she said.
That sentiment came up again and again in interviews with Orlando-area voters. Even though immigration matters do not directly affect Puerto Ricans, they understand what it feels like to be seen as outsiders. “Even though we are citizens, we feel for other people who aren’t, and some of them are our friends and like family to us,” Smith said.
Immigration is a more pressing concern for the Dominicans, Venezuelans, Colombians, and Mexicans who make up the rest of central Florida’s Hispanic community. They, too, lean Democratic but swing between both parties. “Had I not gotten lucky along the way, I would be one of those people who need the Dream Act, and Romney wants to veto it?” said Diana Fis, a 27-year-old law-school student from Venezuela who was undocumented until she married her American husband. “There are a lot of kids that want to give back to this country, this land of opportunity, and I’m an example of that. I can’t support someone who goes against my people.”
Romney had the opportunity to clarify his position on the Dream Act in the second debate with Obama. “The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids, I think, should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States, and military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident,” he said. He also stepped up criticism of Obama for breaking his campaign promise to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
But with polls showing Obama’s lead among Hispanic voters nationwide at 45 to 52 points, it appears that Romney’s earlier, strident calls for border security left a mark. What’s more, the hostility that some Hispanics perceive bleeds into a perception that Romney doesn’t care about the poor or middle class. Democratic attacks on his plan to perpetuate tax breaks for the wealthy and on his career as a venture capitalist have sunk in.
Rachel Figueroa, 19, waits tables at a restaurant owned by her grandmother to help pay her tuition at Valencia College. “I don’t believe Romney is going to work to help the middle class. He’s for the top 1 percent,” she said. Her impression was formed when Romney advised some Ohio college students in April to borrow from their parents. “I’m sure Romney can afford to do that, but my parents can’t,” Figueroa said.