Poll: Obama holds advantage with Latino voters, leaving GOP with uphill battle
Despite loud complaints from Latinos about high unemployment and unfulfilled campaign promises on immigration, President Obama is well situated to repeat his strong performance with Latino voters in 2012.
Obama holds leads over the top three Republican presidential candidates in a new poll conducted by Latino Decisions for Univision News, with the president enjoying far wider advantages among Latino voters, an area of strength that could ultimately prove crucial come next year’s election.
According to the poll released Tuesday — one year before Election Day 2012 — registered Latino voters in the 21 states with the largest Latino populations prefer Obama over the top three GOP presidential candidates, Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, and Rick Perry by two-to-one margins. The president is up 65 percent to 22 percent on Cain, 67 percent to 24 percent on Romney, and a whopping 68 percent to 21 percent on Perry.
That will come as welcome news to the White House as the president prepares for what is shaping up to be a difficult reelection campaign. Obama’s numbers in the Univision News poll equal his performance with Latinos in 2008, when he won over two-thirds of the vote. Each GOP contender received less than the approximately 31 percent Latino support the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), received.
Latinos support Obama in greater numbers than the general voting public. Among registered voters nationwide, Obama holds the largest lead over Perry at 10 percent, with his edge over Romney at 9 percent. Cain, meanwhile, is within 6 percent of the president.
“There’s a lot of good news for the president in this poll,” Gary Segura, a researcher at Latino Decisions and professor of political science at Stanford University, said in a phone interview. “He polls 9 percentage points ahead of his leading rivals on the other side.”
If demographic trends are an indication, Latinos could play an even greater role in the 2012 than they did in 2008. Last election, 6.6 million Latinos voted, but next year a record 12.2 million Latinos are set to vote, a 26 percent increase from 2008, according to projections from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund. Simply put, they are the fastest-growing voting group in the nation.
As last year’s census demonstrated, the growth of Latinos in the past decade has been explosive, coming in at 43 percent. There are now over 50 million Latinos in this country – or nearly one in six Americans.
“The Latino vote is going to be much more influential in 2012 than it was in 2008 because most election forecasters agree that it’s going to be a closer election this time than last time,” said Matt Barreto, a researcher at Latino Decisions and an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington.
In addition to traditional Latino battlegrounds like Nevada, Florida and Colorado, states with fast-growing Latino populations like Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania
“If those states are close, then the president cannot afford any drop-off in Latino turnout,” said Barreto.
With the president entering an election year burdened by a sluggish economy, high disapproval ratings, and an opposing party energized by victories in the 2010 midterm elections, a sizable boost from Latinos could be decisive. But to reap the benefits on Election Day, Obama will first have to earn their vote again.
The day before the Republican debate in Las Vegas last month, a Latino woman named Ana emerged from a cash advance business on the outskirts of town, frustrated with the state of the nation’s economy. After voting for Obama last time around, this time, she said, she will support whoever is ultimately the Republican nominee.
“Two years ago I was good with one job,” she said in Spanish. “Now I’ve got two jobs and I’m still not good.”
Obama, in her opinion, has not done enough to earn her vote again.
“No ha hecho nada,” she said, shaking her head. “He hasn’t done anything.”
But taken as a whole, Latinos are not as torn about the president as the rest of the country: 66 percent of Latinos approve of the job Obama has done, while only 29 percent disapprove. Nationwide, 50 percent of Americans disapprove of the job the president is doing, while 48 percent approve.
Making matters worse for Obama on the national front, the opposition is intense: of the 50 percent who disapprove of his work in the White House, 37 percent disapprove strongly, while the remaining 13 percent only disapprove somewhat. And his approval rating among Latinos appears softer than the top line number, only 30 percent strongly approve of the president’s job performance.
“His approval rating is good among Latinos – not great but good,” said Segura. “The national approval rating here is about what everyone else is finding, that the president is climbing back up a little from the summer.”
As the president himself has acknowledged, the excitement among his supporters is no longer what it was three years ago. If that results in a steep drop-off in turnout, especially at a time when a record number of Latinos are predicted to hit the polls, that could prove damaging to Obama’s re-election chances.
And the Univision News poll suggests that Obama could indeed experience that problem with Latinos. Only 47 percent of registered Latino voters say they are very enthusiastic about voting in 2010, compared to 61 percent of national registered voters.
Forty-eight percent of Latinos say they were more excited about voting in 2008 than this year — 13 percentage points higher than the national sample — and 53 percent say they are less excited about Obama than they were three years ago. Forty-four percent of Latino Democrats, a plurality, share that sentiment.
“We saw historic high levels of Latino turnout in 2008,” observed Barreto. “I think the president is going to be cautious about recapturing those high levels that were there last time.”
Gabriela Domenzain, a spokesperson for the Obama campaign, has repeatedly stated that the president believes that “our country’s success is intricately tied to Hispanic success,” warning that Latinos “stand to lose the most from Republican policies.”
Nearly three years after inheriting an economy in the depths of a severe recession, Obama has struggled to improve the situation. As of the end of last month, the country’s jobless rate stood at 9 percent, but the unemployment rate for Latinos ticked up to 11.4 percent.
Despite a string of foreign policy successes such as the killing of Osama bin Laden and this year’s Arab Spring, the economic doldrums could open the door for a GOP challenger to knock off Obama. ABC News’ latest installment of the Frustration Index showed a rating of 72, on a scale of 0 to 100, one of its highest readings on record.
But to the chagrin of Republicans, Latino voters are not blaming Obama for the struggling economy. Sixty-seven percent believe that President George W. Bush is most responsible for the nation’s economic woes (including 25 percent of Latino Republicans) and only 19 percent say Obama shoulders most of the blame. Those numbers track significantly higher than the sample of general population, which split 50-33 percent between Bush and Obama.
In addition, 57 percent of Latino voters say they trust Obama and the Democrats to fix the economy, compared to 24 percent who trust Republicans.
Many believe that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will win the GOP presidential nomination, but 46 percent of Latinos are unfamiliar with him. (Getty Images)
The Republican contenders – especially the one with the most experience dealing with illegal immigration – face an uphill battle
Among Latinos, Perry, the governor of Texas, is the best-known GOP candidate but has the worst favorability rating of the top three GOP hopefuls: negative 22 percent. In addition, Perry has high negative ratings among the general electorate: negative 16 percent.
Republicans are suffering from a dual-pronged problem, they’re not doing a good job reaching out to Latino voters and the candidates’ tough rhetoric on immigration appears to be turning off Latino voters, including some Latino Republicans.
At the moment, Latinos are not very familiar with the slate of Republican candidates. Over half – 53 percent – have never no opinion of or have never heard of Cain, for instance. It’s worth noting that the poll was mostly conducted before the evening of Sunday Oct. 31, when allegations of sexual harassment were leveled at Cain dating back to his time as head of the National Restaurant Association.
All four of the following candidates – Romney, Perry, Cain and Gingrich – have net negative favorability ratings among Latinos. And Romney, whom political insiders view as the favorite for the GOP nomination, is unknown to many Latinos: 46 percent say they have no opinion or have never heard of him.
Only 13 percent of Latinos say the GOP has done a good job reaching out to them, while 42 percent say Republicans don’t care too much about them and 30 percent believe they are being openly hostile. By comparison, 45 percent of Latinos believe that Democrats have done a good job of reaching out them, while 32 percent say they are apathetic. Only eight percent say they are openly hostile.
“It should be very eye opening that [Republicans] have a lot of work to do on Latino outreach,” said Barreto. “They really need to work on the messaging and the volume of their outreach. The name recognition – even for someone like Romney who’s run before – is very minimal. They need to ratchet up their outreach.”
At an event last month in Sioux City, Iowa, Romney said he thinks the GOP’s biggest weakness as a party is communicating with Latinos.
“I think we do an ineffective job too early communicating with young people and Hispanic voters. Another weakness of us – we’re not doing very well with Hispanic voters and other minorities,” Romney said. “The Hispanic vote is a very large population of our voting public, and ours is the party that wants to preserve the American opportunity that theirs or their ancestors came here for.”
That trend is visible on issues where Republicans should perform better with Latinos, like abortion. Over half of Latino voters believe that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, or only to save the life of a pregnant woman. But a plurality, 37 percent, say the Democratic Party is closest to their position on the issue.
On the bright side for Republicans, they have an opportunity to make inroads with some Latinos if they strike the right chords. Take taxes, for example. A large minority of Latino voters – 42 percent – agree with Republicans that the Bush-era tax cuts should be extended for people of all income levels.
But to date, many Latinos may have been put off by the GOP candidates’ stances on immigration. The hot-button topic has played a high-profile role in the GOP debates to date. First Perry caught fire for his policy of permitting undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition rates in Texas. Then Romney was ripped for hiring a lawn care company to do yard work at his Massachusetts home that employed two undocumented immigrants.
And in recent months, the heated immigration fight has risen up to the Supreme Court. The Obama Justice Department has sued Alabama, Arizona, and South Carolina for enacting individual immigration enforcement laws. All three states have passed strict anti-immigration measures, generating a wave of controversy as well as severe concern among Latinos.
While no Republican candidate believes that the government should offer a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants, according to the new Univision News/Latino Decisions poll, 67 percent of Latinos do, including 64 percent of Latino Republicans. That view is shared by 58 percent of all voters.
Twenty-five percent of the general electorate wants all undocumented immigrants deported, compared to 14 percent of Latino voters.
Adding to the GOP’s immigration problem is the perception among Latinos they are using border security as an excuse to block reform legislation. Sixty-seven percent share that sentiment, including 62 percent of Latino GOPers and the general population alike.
Latinos, like the general electorate, say the economy and jobs will determine how they vote in 2012. But immigration could still play a decisive factor for many Latino voters. (Getty Images)
But the Latino community is currently more concerned with jobs and the economy than they are with immigration reform. According to the Univision News/Latino Decisions poll, among all voters nationwide, 74 percent said the most important issue in how they will pick a candidate to support will be jobs and the economy, while only 10 percent said immigration reform. Among Latinos, 65 percent said it was jobs and the economy, with 23 percent saying immigration reform.
“There’s been this obsession on both sides of the immigration debate that either it’s the only issue or it doesn’t matter at all because everything is about the economy,” said Barreto. “But what we’re finding in here – because we asked the questions in a nuanced way – is that the economy is the head issue for Latino voters as we head into 2012. But there’s very strong evidence here that how you talk about immigration and what you signal on immigration is going to be extremely relevant.”
As part of the new poll, people were asked how they would weigh economy and immigration in a hypothetical situation: if a person supported a candidate’s economic plan, but on immigration the candidate said that “illegal immigrants were a threat to the country who have committed a crime and should never be given amnesty,” would that candidate still earn their vote?
Forty-one percent of all voters said they would be less likely to support that candidate, while 25 percent said they would be more likely to support the candidate. Among Latinos, though, 59 percent said they would not back the candidate, with only 14 percent saying they would be more likely to give their support.
What if the opposite were true? If a person supported a candidate’s economic plan and on immigration the candidate said that “immigrants should be treated with respect and assimilated into the country,” would that candidate still earn their vote?
Forty-six percent of all voters said they would be more likely to vote for the candidate, with only 15 percent less likely to pledge their support. Among Latinos, an overwhelming 76 percent said they would be more likely to support the candidate, with 5 percent stating that they would be less likely to do so.
Ultimately, it is clear that – when economic views are set aside – hostile statements on immigration damage a candidate’s support, while positive statements about immigrants increase support. Predictably, this trend is far stronger among Latino voters, but it is still present among the general electorate.
“The way that you talk about immigrants is very important. Both parties need to take a message from that – they need to change their tone and they also need to be careful what they promise on the Obama side because people are paying attention,” Barreto said.
For instance, the DREAM Act, legislation that would help undocumented students who came to this country before age 16 become legal residents after five years by completing higher education or military service, enjoys widespread support among all voters. Among Latinos, the majority in favor of the bill is a massive 84 percent to 11 percent, while a significant majority of the general electorate also backs the measure by 58 percent to 28 percent.
Asked which party comes closer to their views on immigration, 53 percent of all voters answered that it was the Republican party, while 39 percent replied that it was the Democrats. That was reversed among Latinos, with 34 percent saying Democrats come closest to sharing their views and only 15 percent responding that they side with the GOP.
The Univision News/Latino Decisions poll is based on phone interviews in English and Spanish with 1,000 Latino registered Latino voters conducted between Friday Oct. 21 and Tuesday Nov. 1 in the 21 states with the largest Latino populations in the United States, where 95 percent of U.S. Latinos reside. The margin of error is +/- 3.1 percentage points. Also surveyed during the same time period were 1,000 registered voters nationwide, and the margin of error for that poll is also +/- 3.1 percent.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision. Jordan Fabian is political editor for Univision in English.