Mitt Romney heads into his national convention lagging behind President Obama with a number of demographic groups, perhaps most notably Hispanic voters. Pivoting away from his harsh rhetoric on immigration during the primaries to something more palatable to huge — and hugely important — Hispanic voting bloc has proven impossible for Romney so far, and the Tampa convention may be his last chance to turn things around.
On Wednesday, Romney’s own campaign set the turnaround bar pretty high, saying the campaign needs to hit numbers way above his current polling. Can he do it? It’s an uphill climb, say Republicans focused on burnishing their party’s reputation with Hispanic voters — but it’s not impossible.
The PollTracker Average shows President Obama leading Romney among Hispanic voters, 60.1 percent to 30.9 percent, a vast chasm that’s remained fairly steady throughout the general election contest.
Romney’s campaign says it is banking on that number ticking up. “Our goal is to do better than four years ago … our goal is to hit 38 percent with the Hispanic vote,” Jose Fuentes, a co-chairman of the “Juntos Con Romney” team, told The Hill.
McCain entered the 2008 general election having bucked his party’s conservative base and fought for a comprehensive immigration bill that included a path to legal residency for illegal immigrants already in the country, giving him a natural boost with Hispanics. Romney, who has towed the conservative line on immigration throughout the presidential contest — has no such advantage. Romney used opposed anything that would aid illegal immigrants in the country — including the DREAM Act — as a means to bolster his conservative bona fides, which were lacking compared to other primary candidates like Rick Perry.
Since the primaries ended, Romney has done little to dial that effort back. He was forced to acknowledge that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — a pariah among the immigrant advocacy community — is still an adviser, and largely steered clear of talk on immigration, even when addressing Hispanic audiences.
The woman who led McCain’s outreach to Hispanic voters told TPM that based on what she’s seen, Romney’s goal is a tall order.
“Romney is going to have to buck up and do Spanish media interviews, which will invariably mean he’ll have to answer some tough immigration questions,” GOP strategist Ana Navarro said. “He has a lot of ground to make up in two months. If he gets anywhere near 38 percent, it’s a hell of an achievement and will win him the White House.”
Navarro said Romney could spend big on Hispanic outreach once his general election funds are freed up, potentially building a positive identity in a community that still doesn’t know him well. At the same time, Navarro said Romney will have to spend money directly attacking Obama in Spanish-language ads, drawing a contrast with the president that could blow back on him. Obama has already invested a lot of money on Spanish-language ads, and his move to impose a DREAM Act-like policy through executive fiat helped him draw a clear distinction with Romney, who said he’d veto the DREAM Act if he had the chance.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has tried to do some heavy lifting on Hispanic outreach, though that didn’t go too well. Putting the GOP’s Hispanic stars front and center in primetime is one way the party is trying to play catch-up with Hispanic voters before the election, and Fuentes told The Hill there will be Spanish-language events throughout the festivities.
Some draft language in the party platform could help woo Hispanic voters to the GOP side as well. This week, the platform committee adopted a version of the so-called Texas Solution, a plank calling for a national guest-worker program that flies in the face of what many anti-immigration groups favor.
Brad Bailey, the Texas restauranteur who worked the halls in Tampa to get the Texas Solution adopted in the main platform, told TPM he thinks the shift could change opinions among the Hispanic electorate. Bailey said he believes the GOP can close the gap with Hispanics by November if it takes up a focus like his.
“[Romney’s] making a little more headway, but I would love for him to come talk to us and meet buisnessowners that deal with immigration issues…and compare our stories and our solutions to Kris Kobach, Gov. [Jan] Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio,” he said. “We can’t have that group being the face of immigration reform in our party.”
Along with Bailey’s provision though, the platform includes support for laws like the infamous SB 1070 in Arizona, which Kobach designed and is hated among most Hispanic advocates.
Navarro dismissed the suggestion that the platform will have any effect on November.
“The two scariest words in the English language are ‘Platform Committee,’ regardless of whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” she said. “Some sane people and some crazy people are locked in a room with the task of drafting this meaningless document. In some issues, the sane people win. In others, the crazies win.”
In the days leading up to the Tampa convention, there certainly doesn’t seem to be much confidence in Florida that Romney will improve his support among Hispanic voters. The Tampa Bay Times reported Wednesday that the RNC lost its Hispanic outreach director in the state, helping to fuel “concern among some Florida Hispanics that the RNC/Romney campaign has failed to follow through on its promise” to reach out.