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The Emerging Romney Latino Strategy: Focus on the Economy, Ignore Immigration, and Get Some Latino Voters to Stay Home

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Having backed himself into a corner on immigration during the Republican primary, recent events strongly suggest that Mitt Romney’s campaign and surrogates have decided on a three-part Latino strategy heading into the general election: (1) focus solely on the economy to compete for the small slice of Latino voters willing to look past anti-immigration rhetoric and policies; (2) have the candidate avoid discussing immigration, even when speaking before Latino audiences; and (3) rely on Republican surrogates and Super PACs to attack President Obama on his immigration record, in a blatant effort to suppress turnout among Latino voters close to the immigration debate who are disappointed with President Obama’s record to date.

This strategy took shape in recent weeks:

1)      Focus on the Economy: Earlier this month, Dan Balz and Philip Rucker of theWashington Post reported that Romney advisors believe they will be able to 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.”  What’s the thinking behind such as strategy?  To peel off a small slice of Latino voters for whom immigration is not a major issue and who might be willing to look beyond the candidate’s anti-immigrant policies and the GOP’s harsh rhetoric.  But as we havepointed out, pretending the immigration issue does not matter is a misreading of the way the vast majority of Latino voters view the immigration debate.  The immigration issue and related rhetoric transcends a simple policy debate.  While Latino voters, like everyone else, view fixing the economy as job one for the next president, most Latino voters see immigration as a threshold issue and express an unwillingness to vote for a candidate they view as anti-immigrant – even if they agree with that candidate on the economy.

2)      Ignore Immigration: While Romney will undoubtedly have to engage on the topic at some point during the next five months of the general election, a number of commentators highlighted the fact that the candidate did not mention “immigration” or “the DREAM Act” a single time in his speech before the Latino Coalition this week.  As Ana Navarro, who advised former Republican nominee John McCain on Hispanic issues, told Beth Reinhard of National Journal, “You don’t have to talk about immigration every time you go in front of a Latino audience, but you have to talk about Latinos.  Romney got panned for that in the Hispanic press.  Every demographic wants to be acknowledged and courted.”  And what will Romney say when he does address immigration?  Will he Etch-a-Sketch to the middle or stay hard right?  We predict he will downplay his primary talk of “illegals,” Arizona as a “model,” and “self-deportation” and retreat to vague messaging about plans to revamp “legal immigration.”  He will try, in other words, to ignore the elephant in the room: what to do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country, including some two million who came here as young kids.

3)      Try to Discourage Pro-immigrant Latino Voters from Voting at All: The final plank of the Romney Latino strategy that seems to be taking shape is the most troubling of all: to be carried out by Republican surrogates and Super PACs, the idea is to depress the Latino vote by bombarding pro-immigration Latino voters with ads attacking President Obama’s immigration record – both for his failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform and for his Administration’s record number of deportations.  The goal is not to convince these passionately pro-immigrant Latino voters to vote for Romney, but rather to exploit their pronounced lack of enthusiasm in 2012 in hopes they don’t vote at all.  Already, Republicans have been unified in hammering the “broken promises” and record deportations messaging and now, outside groups and Super PACs have joined the fray.  A new effort geared to Nevada Latinos and spearheaded by the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles goes so far as to make the claim that President Obama is “worse than Joe Arpaio” on immigration.  We expect other Republican outside groups, with vastly more resources, to make similar pitches to Latino audiences as the general election unfolds.  As Adam Serwer at Mother Jones points out, “Obama has a large lead over Romney among Latinos, but the ratio of the Latino vote that Obama gets is less important than the number of Latinos who would have voted Obama but stay home out of disappointment with the administration.”  On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” yesterday, political journalist John Heilemann made a similar point, predicting that instead of pivoting to pro-immigrant policies to improve his vote share, Republicans will use Obama’s immigration record to mount “a viciously negative campaign against Obama by both the Romney campaign and the Republican super PACs” aimed at trying to “to drive the overall vote total down and be able to not be hurt as badly if they can get Hispanics just to stay home.”

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “The Romney playbook with respect to Latino voters is coming into focus.  It’s ugly and it’s cynical.  But it does represent a challenge to the Obama campaign, which needs from Latino voters both a huge margin and a huge mobilization. What can President Obama do to capitalize on Romney’s historically low standing among Latino voters?  Give Latino voters discouraged with the Administration’s immigration record more reasons to turn out to the polls.  He can provide DREAM Act-eligible young people with protection against deportation and work permits so they are given a chance to contribute to the country they call home.  And he can insist that DHS improve the on-the-ground implementation of his sensible policy directives to protect the civil rights and family unity of hard working immigrants with strong claims to stay to America.  As for Romney, we hope that his embrace of hard line immigration policies – positions that are not even supported by the majority of Republican primary voters – leads his party to change course, for unless and until they do they will continue to find themselves on the wrong side of our history and the wrong side of our demographic future.”

America’s Voice – Harnessing the power of American voices and American values to win common sense immigration reform.