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Romney and Latino voters: Does he stand a chance?

Mitt Romney waves after speaking during the 2012 Republican National Convention this week in Tampa, Florida, where he accepted the GOP nomination.
Mitt Romney waves after speaking during the 2012 Republican National Convention this week in Tampa, Florida, where he accepted the GOP nomination.
Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney secured the Republican presidential nomination this week, but polls indicate that he has a long way to go in order to secure the support he needs from Latino voters that could help him win the White House.

Unlike former Republican president George Bush, whose immigration message resonated favorably enough to win him substantial Latino support, Romney hasn't scored well there. The most recent Latino Decisions tracking poll had 26 percent of Latino voters polled saying they would vote for Romney, versus 65 percent saying they would re-elect President Barack Obama. This is far from the goal that Romney's campaign has set, which is that he'll need 38 percent of the Latino vote in order to win.

Does Romney stand a chance? It's highly unlikely he'll hit the 38 percent goal, says Louis DeSipio, a political scientist and professor of Chicano/Latino Studies at UC Irvine. But there are still a few targeted approaches that Romney's campaign can take in states where Latinos might help tip the balance. Here he explains how.

M-A: Mitt Romney's campaign has determined that he must capture 38 percent of the Latino vote in order to defeat President Obama in November. Polls show he is nowhere near close. Does his campaign stand any chance of getting there?

DeSipio: They aren’t going to get there. Those national averages, the Bush campaign used them as well, but they are a little misleading. It doesn’t matter how many Latino votes they get in Texas, or California for that matter, because those states are in solidly in one camp or the other. If hypothetically their goal was to get a lot of Latino voters, they would get that in Texas.

The real question is can they get mid-to-high 30s in a state like New Mexico, which could tip the balance in the Electoral College. Or if they could get mid 50s or 60 percent in Florida, where there is a divided Latino community, and strong turnout in South Florida. That is what they really need to do, rather than look at it nationally. Then the question becomes, what can they do in those states where Latino votes can tip the difference for electoral college?

New Mexico has gone back and forth in the last couple of elections. It went for Gore in 2000 and Bush in 2004. It is a state that has demonstrated that it does shift. Also Colorado, although it has been pretty solidly Democratic through most of the 2000s.

M-A: What would the Romney campaign need to do specifically?

DeSipio: One part of the answer is that the Romney campaign can do religious outreach and it can insure that Latinos are included in that outreach, going to Latino churches, particularly the fundamentalist churches.

Florida is going to be competitive and has been in most of the recent elections. The Romney campaign has had a good relationship with the local Cuban American elected officials and members of Congress. And they have a good turnout mechanism when they want to support a candidate.

The trade-off is the Obama campaign will work the I-4 corridor, which goes from Tampa to Orlando to the Atlantic coast. It is sort of the center of the state and has constituents that lean more toward the Democratic party, such as Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans.

Before the 2000 election, the Latino vote in Florida used to go 70 percent to Republicans. Since 2000, it has become competitive. A lot depends on turnout in that part of the state. Kerry did a terrible job, and didn’t get as many Latino votes as he needed there.

Getting 38 percent nationally is a good goal because it would reflect that there is broad support from Latinos nationally. But Romney doesn’t have the time or resources to really care about that right now. What he needs to do what he needs is focus on specific Latino swing states. He can make inroads with religious conservative New Mexico Latinos, who have responded through churches, and strong outreach in Florida.

M-A: Where might Romney benefit least from pursuing Latino voters?

DeSipio: Texas is so solidly in the Republican camp, Latinos could make it a bigger landslide, but I can’t imagine a scenario where white Republicans wouldn’t turn out in large enough numbers.

Latinos in New York, Illinois, California, those are big constituencies, but those states are going to go to the Democrats. And in Texas, in relation to other states, there are more Latino conservatives there than anywhere else expect for South Florida. But there's not a lot of outreach to anybody. Latinos don't turn out at the same rate as in other states. If Texas Latinos started turning out in higher numbers over time, they would make the state much more competitive for the Democrats.

M-A: So far, Latino voters aren't showing much enthusiasm for Paul Ryan. Might Romney have benefited by choosing a Latino running mate, as many speculated he might.

DeSipio: It potentially would have in that it would have given him more to say to Latino communities. He needs to talk about immigration when he talks to Latinos, and he tries, but he sort of trapped himself in the primaries in this self-deportation rhetoric, and that has limited him in how much he can move away from it without being seen as a complete flip-flopper.

If he had either Sen. Marco Rubio or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, he would have had someone on the ticket who could have gone into Latino communities and seemed more sensitive. Romney can't pull that off when he goes into a Latino community. So it would have helped.

I thought perhaps Marco Rubio was not a good pick on a number of dimensions, but Susana Martinez was also mentioned. She is also Mexican American, and that would have spoken to a large number of Latinos. Also, she has executive experience. She's a governor that has been in for two years and has a lot more on-the-ground experience than a senator. Thankfully, neither party asks me, but I thought she had a lot of strengths, and that would have given that personal touch to the ticket.

M-A: So if Romney focuses on states where Latinos can tip the balance, does the outreach needed and wins some of their support, do you think he stands a chance of winning?

DeSipio: Yes, but it would be in combination with lots of outreach to other communities. He would have to combine some surprise victories in Florida, New Mexico and maybe Colorado with gaining white working class votes in the upper Midwest, in states like Wisconsin and Ohio.

He would need to combine success with Latino communities with gains in another electorate, and the most obvious one for him would be white working class voters, who have become disaffected from the Democratic party in the past 12 years or so. Latinos alone can't be the magic bullet for a Romney victory.

He needs to win a handful of votes in Florida and New Mexico and maybe Colorado, and in addition to those states he would need at least Ohio. I think Romney could win with well less than 38 percent of the Latino vote, but he would have to do well with other parts of the electorate.

Latinos aren't the path to victory for the Romney ticket, and I suspect they know that, because they are not doing a very good job at Latino outreach, and there are Republicans who know how to do excellent Latino outreach. The Latino electorate will be critical if President Obama wins. If Romney wins, I suspect Latinos will be just an afterthought.