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In what was billed as a major speech designed to start repairing his standing with Latino voters, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney today addressed the Latino Coalition in Washington. Notably, the speech did not mention “immigration” a single time or refer to “the DREAM Act,” revealing the Romney campaign’s belief that they can somehow improve their historically low standing among Latino voters by ignoring immigration.
Even with education policy as the focus of today’s speech, Romney failed to recognize that his hardline immigration stance dampens potential Latino support while opening him up to charges of hypocrisy. In his remarks, Romney said, “Here in America, every child deserves a chance. It shouldn’t be reserved for the fortunate few.” However, by pledging to veto the DREAM Act, Romney is epitomizing exactly that. Despite today’s opportunity to explain his thinking, Romney failed to address or explain why he remains against legislation that would open the doors of opportunity to young undocumented immigrants who have grown up as Americans, want to attend college, and hope to give back to the country they call home. Unfortunately for Romney, January 2012 polling by Latino Decisions on behalf of Univision/ABC News found that 54% of Latino voters were less likely to support a candidate who promised to veto the DREAM Act.
Earlier this month, Romney’s campaign told the Washington Post that they will shore up their poor standing among Latino voters “by focusing on economic issues in their messaging to the Latino community, believing that will overcome damage done during the primaries by Romney’s hard-line stance on immigration.” Today’s remarks demonstrated that the Romney campaign is following through on this approach. However, this is a fundamental misreading of the way the majority of Latino voters view the immigration debate and the way the issue and related rhetoric transcends a simple policy debate.
While Latino voters view fixing the economy as job one for the next president, they also view immigration as a threshold issue and are turned off by anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, in part due to their personal connection to the immigration debate. For example, 2011 polling from Latino Decisions and impreMedia of Latino voters nationwide found that 53% of poll respondents reported personally knowing an undocumented person, whether a relative, friend, or co-worker. November 2011 polling from impreMedia and Latino Decisions found that Romney’s hardline primary stance on immigration is likely to harm his appeal to Latino voters: the poll asked, “Let’s say one of the candidates had a plan to improve the economy that you supported, and on the immigration issue the candidate said, quote: ‘illegal immigrants are a threat to America who have committed a crime, we can never support amnesty for illegals.’ Would that statement make you more likely to support the candidate, less likely to support the candidate, or would you not care what they said about immigration if you agreed with their plan for the economy?” A full 59% of Latino voter respondents said that would make them “less likely to support” that candidate.
Given the hardline tone and extreme policy positions embraced by Romney during the Republican primary season on immigration, perhaps it makes sense that the Romney campaign wants to avoid discussing immigration before Latino audiences. However, it is impossible to pretend that Romney can climb out of his current deficit among Latino voters by continuing to ignore the immigration elephant in the room.
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