Commentary: Hispanic voters will be Romney's biggest problem

The Miami HeraldJanuary 12, 2012 

Republican hopeful Mitt Romney will have two big problems if, as expected, he clinches the Republican nomination for the November election: his business background and Hispanic voters.

While most of the media focus on the first, Romney’s biggest problem will be the second.

Right now, political pundits in Washington are focusing on Romney’s past as former head of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that critics — including fellow Republican contender Newt Gingrich — say raided corporations and laid off thousands of workers during his tenure.

The Obama campaign is already salivating at the possibility of using this line of attack against Romney in November. At a time when jobs are the No. 1 U.S. problem, and when Romney presents himself as a successful private sector leader who could turn around the economy, depicting Romney as a job destroyer would go to the heart of the Republican campaign’s narrative.

But the former Massachusetts governor may be able to fend off attacks on his performance at Bain Capital by convincing voters that he created more jobs than he eliminated, and that most of the companies he took over ended up healthier than before. That will be a my-figures-versus-your-figures debate, which may very well end in a draw that would neutralize the Democrats’ job-killer campaign.

On the other hand, winning over the Hispanic vote will be a much tougher battle for Romney, because it will be a fight that will take place in the realm of people’s emotions, which are much harder to twist than facts.

A November poll of Latino voters by the Univisión network found that Romney does not fare well among Hispanics. The poll showed that if the elections were held today, Obama would beat Romney by 67 percent to 24 percent.

The conventional wisdom among pollsters is that no Republican candidate can win the White House with less than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Former President George W. Bush won the 2004 election with 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. In the 2008 elections, Republican candidate Sen. John McCain, a moderate on immigration issues, got 31 percent of the Hispanic vote, and lost the election.

Will Romney be able to win 40 percent of the Hispanic vote when, in his efforts to win the extreme right of the Republican party in the nomination process, he has taken much harder-line stands than McCain did in 2008? It will be very difficult for him to do it, most pollsters say.

In sharp contrast to McCain in the last election, Romney is strongly against an immigration reform that would give a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants who have lived here for decades and meet certain conditions such as learning English and paying back taxes. He also strongly opposes the Dream Act, which would allow undocumented youths who were brought to this country as small children to earn legal status if they go to college or join the military.

While immigration doesn’t rank at the top of Hispanic voters’ concerns, candidates’ stands on immigration tend to mold their feelings toward politicians, and Romney’s harsh rhetoric against undocumented workers during the recent debates have left many Latinos feeling, “this guy doesn’t like us.”

My opinion: If there are no surprises and Romney wins the Republican nomination, he will need to make a dramatic move to win the Hispanic vote. Moderating his rhetoric or stressing that his father was born in Mexico —where his family of Mormon missionaries had moved — won’t suffice. There is just too much TV footage of the Republican presidential hopeful coming across as bashing Hispanic undocumented workers and their children.

There is speculation that Romney could choose Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as his running mate, in hopes of capturing the Latino vote. But that won’t work. Rubio is against a comprehensive immigration reform, opposes the Dream Act and has supported Arizona’s draconian immigration law. Except for Cuban-Americans, he is unlikely to be seen by most Hispanics as “one of us.”

Romney’s best bet would be to pick former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is popular in Florida and would help the Republicans win the state, speaks fluent Spanish, is married to a Mexican and is much more moderate than Romney and Rubio on immigration issues.

Barring a daring move like that, Romney can’t beat Obama. Right now only a worsening economy can beat Obama.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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