Mitt Romney’s advisers have long insisted that economic doldrums—not immigration policy—would turn Hispanic voters toward the Republican nominee.
But Romney’s decision to break his silence on allowing young illegal immigrants to stay in the United States reflects a shift in that failing strategy and an implicit admission that the increasingly powerful Hispanic vote could, in part, cost him the election.
After months of mostly stonewalling about President Obama’s order to stop deporting children brought to the United States illegally by their parents, Romney told The Denver Post on Monday that he would not repeal those temporary visas. On Tuesday, his campaign said he would end the program for others if elected president.
The delicate parsing shows the sensitivity of the immigration issue and Romney's attempt to balance appeasing conservatives with reaching out to more moderate voters. When Obama made the announcement about so-called deferred deporations in June, Romney criticized it as a politically motivated maneuver and said he would “replace and supersede” the order with a “long-term solution.”
Romney’s amended immigration policy comes as a new CNN poll shows 64 percent of registered voters supporting Obama's move. Polls also show Obama trouncing Romney in the fast-growing Hispanic community. Four million more Hispanic voters will be eligible to vote in 2012 than in 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, though their turnout has lagged behind black and white voters.
“With Romney’s current level of support among Latinos, he loses," said Ana Navarro, who advised former GOP nominee John McCain on Hispanic issues. “He has no option but to keep trying to make up ground.”
During the Republican primary—when Romney was courting a less diverse and more conservative slice of the electorate—he referred to Democratic legislation that would legalize kids who attend college or serve in the military as a “handout" and said he would veto it. More recently, Romney has said he would accept the military exception in the Dream Act and called for broader, bipartisan immigration reform.
The more moderate tone has been accompanied by a surge in Spanish-language advertising since the nominating convention one month ago allowed Romney to tap into general election funds. Still, Romney has been outmatched 2-to-1 by President Obama and his allies in 10 states with large Hispanic populations, according to a recent analysis by Kantar Media and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and reported by Univision.
Democrats say Romney’s efforts are too little too late. "What he may now be saying doesn’t erase what he has been affirming for over a year on the campaign trail," said Freddy Balsera, an Obama adviser on Hispanic outreach. “That is why Hispanic voters don’t feel they can trust him.”
There is also disappointment with Obama, who failed to make good on his promise to pass sweeping immigration reform and has deported record numbers of illegal immigrants. The 10.2 percent unemployment rate in the Hispanic community is more than 2 percentage points higher than national average. “Immigration is an important issue in the Hispanic community but it is not the defining issue,” a top Romney adviser told National Journal recently. “Hispanic voters care about the same things other voters care about—which is jobs and the economy.”
A new Romney ad in Spanish released on Tuesday, like previous Spanish spots, steers clear of immigration policy and blames Obama for saddling future generations with a $16 trillion national debt. “The legacy to our children: a debt they don’t deserve without the jobs to pay for it,” the ad says.
That’s a powerful case against a president running for reelection in the worst economy since World War II. Yet Romney’s slightly improved but persistent deficit with Hispanic voters in the polls indicates that his hardline stance against illegal immigration in the primaries made a lasting negative impression. Time is running short for Romney to improve his standing in the Hispanic community, especially if his new, more nuanced approach to illegal immigration is not backed up with paid advertising in the Spanish-language media.