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Will the Latino Vote be Decisive?

By R. Alan Clanton

Thursday Review Editor


Remember all that smart money back in March and April that said the safest bet to make in this presidential race was a wager against Mitt Romney, for surely it would be impossible for a candidate—any candidate—to make the requisite pivot back toward the middle after the long, arduous GOP primary and caucus season?
Now, for the second month in a row, President Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney are locked in a virtual dead heat, with the President getting only the slightest of edges, depending on whose poll numbers one looks at. New figures presented tonight by NBC News (the poll was conducted by NBC News & the Wall Street Journal) place Obama at 47% and Romney at 44%. Last month, aggregate polls had the numbers at roughly 46% and 43%, respectively.

In a race this close, the big ticket battleground states loom even larger than some of their own record-setting weather conditions, which include intense prairie fires and record-breaking rainfalls. We can expect to see a lot of the candidates on the ground in Florida, Colorado, Ohio and five other key states. (See last week’s Swing State Tango, June 17, 2012).

Indeed, the candidates and their campaign teams are operating as if they were only weeks away from the general election, not fifty days away from their respective conventions.

Romney, at the moment at least, seems trapped by the issue of immigration.  The Supreme Court’s recent ruling which knocked down most of Arizona’s template—a law, though it was controversial, which was also being closely watched by other states—seems to have left Romney with little to offer reporters by way of a firm position beyond vague expressions of “the need for reform.”  Romney had taken a more hardline approach during the primaries, in some cases chiding his GOP opponents in debates (notably Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich) for their seemingly flexible and sometimes generous positions on immigration, especially as it applied to students, young people, and residents deeply tied to their communities.

President Obama, widely seen as having lagged on immigration issues for this first three years in office, has now taken his own proactive approach, publicly opposing the Arizona law (and a similar law being debated in Alabama), issuing sweeping decrees liberalizing the status of students and young immigrants, and engaging in a policy of federal non-cooperation with Florida governor Rick Scott and Sunshine State proposals to remove the names of some ineligible voters from registration lists.

So, on the big immigration chessboard, Obama has put Romney in check, but not checkmate.  This too may pass as Romney and his team seek ways to improve their outreach to Latinos—a difficult task to be sure, but not impossible.  This will undoubtedly increase the chatter regarding Marco Rubio, the popular U.S. Senator from Florida, as a potential running-mate, just as it has forced prominent Republican Latinos into awkward or vague explanations of Romney’s beliefs and policy proposals when it comes to citizenship.

Conventional wisdom of late is that the Red-Blue divide will split voters in the majority of states, rendering the native Spanish-speaking vote the decisive factor in

But this assumes a lot—not the least of which is that Latinos will vote en mass for one candidate or the other, an assumption of voting-bloc behavior for which there has been little evidence in past elections.  Still, Democrats feel Obama’s recent actions may solidify a four-to-five year trend which shows the diverse Latino population migrating from a largely independent footprint and toward greater identification with the Democratic Party.  For Romney, the choice of Rubio may in fact be a wise one, especially to bring Florida decisively into the GOP fold in November—but the larger Latino community’s complex diversity may render such a political partnership irrelevant in states like Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada or Colorado.  The practical concerns of the Cuban-American in Miami or the Argentine-American in Tampa may not be the same as the Mexican-American in Phoenix or the Honduran-American in Denver. 

But such is the seductive power of the independent voter, especially in the swing states, to generate tidal ebb and flow, especially in a tight presidential race now seen as quickly settling into a partisan us-versus-them dynamic.  And for most reporters, editors and news producers, it is easier to divide than add or multiply; easier to think of Latinos as a mega-group, not as individual voters.

This fixation with group-dynamics has been a factor for six months or more as President Obama seeks to re-energize many of his lost or at-risk constituencies, those progressive or liberal interest groups who have expressed a general dissatisfaction with Obama’s lack of action on a variety of social issues.  Thus the urgency of introducing a variety of sweeping actions: mandates regarding employer health insurance as it relates to birth control and women’s health; a broadly-framed statement on same-sex marriage rights; unilateral action to broaden the ability of children of illegal immigrants—students and young people—to remain in the U.S. legally, just to name a few examples.  Plus, the intense mini-dramas in the arena of social issues divert the conversation from the economy and jobs, which is where Romney would rather focus.

But, as it turns out, even the charting of nation’s economic woes falls too easily into the world of partisanship: the same battery of questions posed to voters by NBC News/The Wall Street Journal produced the odd and disquieting result that the majority of Democrats think the economy has gotten better, while the majority of Republicans think it has gotten worse or has improved very little. Romney is seen by respondents as being more qualified to understand the creation of jobs, even as the Obama strategists run negative ads portraying the former Bain executive as an incorrigible outsourcer of American work.

In the meantime the so-called Battleground States remain fertile territory for storms both tropical and heat-inspired.  The half dozen states regarded as toss-ups remain, after two months, stubbornly close.

So the President campaigns in Florida while Romney campaigns in Virginia.  Within a few days, the candidates will likely trade places, with all eyes upon the size and enthusiasm of the Latino crowds at campaign appearances.

The newest smart money says that this horse race could go down to the wire.