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Latino Voters in 2012: Yes Mitt, Immigration Does Matter

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Orlando Sentinel Look at I-4 Corridor Captures Personal Nature of Immigration Debate for Many Latinos 

Political analysts are in agreement that Latino voters will help shape the outcome in numerous 2012 battleground states – and perhaps determine the presidency in the process.  For example, the Orlando Sentinel captures the dynamics at play in Florida, writing, “The presidential race could come down to this: To win in November, President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney needs the biggest swing state: Florida.  For that, either man needs Florida’s critical swing area: the I-4 corridor.  For that, he needs the corridor’s swing counties: Orange and Osceola.  For that, he needs the emerging Hispanic base.”

However, the candidates seem to have two fundamentally different assessments of the role of the immigration issue to Latino voters, both in Florida and across the nation.  Notably, Mitt 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.”  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, like all Americans, view fixing the economy as job one for the next president, they view immigration as a defining, threshold issue and are turned off by Romney’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric.  This is in large part due to Latino voters’ personal connection to immigration.   As the Sentinel article notes of Puerto Rican voters on the I-4 corridor from Tampa through the Orlando area, “As Puerto Ricans, they are American citizens, so the immigration issue doesn’t directly affect them. As Hispanics, they still take it personally.”  The piece then quotes a Florida voter of Puerto Rican descent named Julian Pérez, who says, “I know a lot of people who got deported.  They were good people, you know. And I guess that’s what bothers me.”  Such observations are far from unique.  In fact, July 2011 polling from Latino Decisions found that 53% of Latino voters across the country said that they know someone who is undocumented, with 25% saying that they know someone who has faced deportation.

For the Romney campaign, and others hoping that economic messaging is sufficient to repair damaging immigration stance, November 2011 polling from impreMedia and Latino Decisions should throw cold water on that theory.  The poll posed to Latino voters the question, “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, including 55% in Florida, said that would make them “less likely to support” that candidate.

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