TAMPA---At a forum hosted by three top news outlets this morning, a pair of Republican pollsters revealed the numbers each candidate should fear more than any other poll results if they expect to win the White House this year.
Kellyanne Conway, founder and president of The Polling Company and longtime GOP pollster said the growing demographic haunting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was unmarried women. Though Republicans traditionally trail Democrats with that demographic, Conway said there's no reason for that to be the case. And the voters Republicans think make up that category may be wrong.
"The Republican Party is in peril if they are waiting for the young to get old and the single to get married to find new voters," she said during the forum hosted jointly by the National Journal, The Atlantic and CBS News. "What they should appreciate is that unmarried women are not all 20 on a college campus and concerned about the environment and abortion."
Many unmarried women are older and are unmarried "by choice, not circumstance." And they care about being in charge of their own finances and their own businesses, an area ripe for GOP appeal, Conway added.
Whit Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research and another old Republican hand at polling, said the worst number facing Romney right now is his support among Hispanic voters, which hit an all-time high at 44 percent when President George W. Bush won his re-election in 2004, but has since plunged. Romney is losing Hispanic voters to President Barack Obama by a 2 to 1 margin.
"It is more troubling 10 years down the road than it is this election," Ayres said. "Every month 50,000 Hispanic youngsters turn 18 years old and become eligible to vote and it will be that way for the next 20 years."
Ayres said Republicans know they have a problem and need to start work now to increase support by appealing to Latinos directly on issues such as education and the economy.
"It's very clear Republicans are going to need to do better among Hispanics, not a majority, but more in the George Bush territory than where Mitt Romney is today going forward," he said.
President Barack Obama has some poll number to look out for too.
So-called self-identified iIndependent voters are his toughest sell, Conway said. Independents in the past more likely weren't paying attention to politics, she said.
"Now people are independent not because they don't pay attention to politics, it's because they do," Conway said, adding that a recent Pew survey showed 43 percent of men and about 33 percent of women were independents. It's an even greater percentage of voters in swing states like Ohio and Florida.
"Independents tend to be very skeptical of governance," she said. And when independents flipped from support of the president in 2008 to support of Republicans in 2010, "it was largely seen as a rebuff of Obama."
Ayres offered up as Obama's toughest polling number the flipside of Romney's Hispanic issue—non-college educated whites.
"President Obama got 42 percent of the white vote in 2008; he's now in the low- to mid-30's," he said. "It has nothing to do with somehow our country getting more racist over the last 3 ½ years. It has everything to do with the fact that President Obama has governed like a veteran liberal who has believed—and demonstrated through his words that he believes—blue collar whites are bitter people who cling to their guns and religion."
Ayres said Romney's path to victory may rest on winning a higher percentage of white voters than 2008 nominee John McCain.
"Mitt Romney could very well move the percentage of the total white vote from the 54 percent that John McCain got to 60 percent or maybe more in 2012 and if he does that he stands a very good chance of getting elected," he said.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.