President Obama speaks at Manchester Central High School in Manchester,… (Darren McCollester / Getty…)
For President Obama, there's good and bad news when it comes to the fast-growing Latino vote and its role in the 2012 presidential race.
Obama captured two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008, but he faces a distinct enthusiasm gap heading into his reelection bid, an expert on Latino public opinion said.
Gary Segura, a principal in the polling firm Latino Decisions, said Republicans are far more excited about the election than Latinos and Democrats more broadly.
Segura and two advocates for overhauling the nation's immigration system spoke to reporters Tuesday about the immigration issue and how it may influence the presidential contest.
Another trouble spot for Obama is that that most people "have no idea what the Obama administration has done to improve circumstances" for Latinos, Segura said.
For example, Latinos are largely unaware that the Obama administration filed suit in 2010 to block implementation of a strict new immigration law in Arizona, he said. Nor do they know that the administration announced in August that it would relax its deportation policies, making more of an effort to target criminals who are living in the U.S. illegally, as opposed to students or those who were brought to the U.S. as children.
In that sense, Obama's political troubles flow from a "communication problem" with respect to a "core constituency," Segura said.
Then there's the matter of an unfulfilled campaign promise. Obama has made little progress in passing a bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants.
"We think he didn't put enough muscle into comprehensive immigration reform, as he famously promised before a Latino audience in the run-up to the 2008 election," said Frank Sharry, founder of America's Voice.
But Obama isn't in horrible shape. At some point he'll be running against a flesh-and-blood Republican opponent. And many of the GOP candidates, while courting conservative primary voters, have made statements about illegal immigration that will be tough to walk back in a general election, when the focus turns to independent voters who tend to be more centrist.
As Romney "lurches further to the right on this," Sharry said, Obama "will be able to rock and roll the Latino vote" should Romney go on to win the Republican nomination.
It's no accident that the Republicans have yet to take part in a debate on Spanish-language television, Segura said.
"They don't want to say the things they have to say in a primary election in front of a Spanish-speaking audience," he said. "Look for this pattern to continue."
Newt Gingrich deviated from Republican orthodoxy in a debate last week. He espoused a more nuanced view than that of his Republican opponents, suggesting that it is a mistake to deport people who have lived in the U.S. for many years, separating them from their families.
Romney countered that such a move would only encourage more people to come to the U.S. illegally.
But Gingrich's position may be a smart play should he emerge as the Republican nominee. He signaled to Latino voters that he opposes mass deportations. Yet, he stopped short of calling for a policy that gives undocumented immigrants what he called "a pass to citizenship" -- meaning they wouldn't be able to vote even if they gain legal status.
"Gingrich is threading the needle," Segura said, by trying to "send a positive message on immigration and at the same time making sure that these people never enter the electorate. That's a strategic play."