Delegate Antonia Gonzalez of Seattle shows her support at the Democratic… (Joe Raedle / Getty Images )
CHARLOTTE, N.C. —After the Republican National Convention last week, some polls indicate that Mitt Romney got a bump among Latinos, although President Obama still has overwhelming Latino support.
Speeches in Tampa by high-profile Latinos including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez helped the GOP. So, too, did Romney’s youngest son, Craig, who spoke to the convention in Spanish, said Janet Murguia, who heads the National Council of La Raza. The gesture “conveyed sincerity and authenticity,” she said.
The bump in polls, however ephemeral, should be a lesson to both parties as Democrats gather here to nominate Obama for reelection, Murguia and other leaders agreed at a meeting of the nonpartisan National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO. The vast and fast-growing Latino vote, they said, may favor one party now but it is not set in stone.
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“If we look at the 2000 and 2004 elections, George W. Bush would not have been elected president without substantial Hispanic support. Barack Obama would not have won key states without Hispanic support,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO. “So either party that takes this vote for granted, either thinking they will or will not vote for them, does so at its own peril.”
The reason is clear: The nation’s Latino population increased by 43% between 2000 and 2010. One in four Americans now under the age of 18 is Latino.
Polls show that more than 2 out of 3 Latinos support Obama, but Latinos aren’t hard-wired to be Democrats, said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota . Most Latinos believe Democrats treat them better than the Republicans, or at least not worse, he said.
“The Latinos have never been predisposed to be Democrat,” Monterroso said. But, he added, “people feel like one party is attacking us; the other may be ignoring us, but at least we’re not being harmed.”
Monica Lozano, chief executive of ImpreMedia, a Latino news and information company, said that “this is not a constituency that is completely behind one political party.”
“It’s not a permanent gap, and that’s what’s so important,” Lozano said. “This is a vote that can be persuaded if you have the right candidate. With the right strategy, the right messaging and done in a respectful way, the Republicans can pick up a significant amount of the Latino vote.”
Though jobs and the economy are the priorities of most Latinos, like other Americans, Romney took a hard line on illegal immigration during the Republican primaries. Most Latino voters are not directly affected by those policies, but the harsh tone did not help the GOP with Latino voters.
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The wild card is whether Latinos will vote in heavy numbers in November, especially in battleground states such as Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and Colorado. Latinos historically vote at significantly lower rates than whites and blacks. Latino groups are collaborating on efforts to boost the vote this year.
NALEO projects that more than 12.2 million Latinos will cast ballots, an increase of 26% from 2008. But that’s still barely half the number of eligible Latino voters.
Lozano said Spanish-language advertising and media could play a larger role in getting out the vote. But others said English-language media were critical to reaching Latinos who are born or were raised in the U.S.
“That’s one reason we’re doing an extensive amount of research trying to understand why a considerable amount of Latinos don’t register to vote or don’t vote,” Vargas said. “One theory is the political conversation is not addressing the need of U.S. citizen Latinos who were born here and multi-generational, for which immigration is not a personal issue to be resolved.”
Murguia said Latinos needed to make their voices heard at the ballot box if they wanted to gain real political clout.
“We will be voting for ourselves” in November, she said. “We will be enhancing our own ability to create the power and the clout that will ultimately turn the policies we want to see change.”
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