GOP Is Obama's Best Asset With Latinos

By paying more attention to immigration reform Obama can secure the Latino bloc.

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President Obama has been warned in the media and elsewhere that he is in trouble with his base. African-Americans are disappointed. Students aren't willing to give up a few hours of study time to go door-to-door for him. And Latinos, too, we are told, are frustrated that nothing has been done about immigration reform, even in the first two years, when Obama enjoyed Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress.

But as in the election as a whole, Obama's best asset may be the Republicans. The president's core supporters may have hoped for more change, but there is evidence that they'd still rather have Obama than any GOP alternative.

The most recent example comes in the form of a recent Latino Decisions poll. In the survey, Obama enjoys a net approval rating of 63 percent (with 29 percent somewhat or strongly disapproving). A full 64 percent said they would definitely or likely vote for Obama next year. Those numbers aren't as amazing as they sound; historically speaking, a Democrat needs to get at least 60 percent of the Hispanic vote to win nationally. But it's a solid set of numbers for a president who is leading the nation at an unusually difficult time.

[Read why Hispanics are key to a victory in the 2012 presidential race.]

Obama, after all, wasn't the favorite of Latinos in the 2008 primary. Hillary Rodham Clinton has a strong and long-running relationship with Latino leaders and voters. It was part of why Clinton won the Texas primary (with Obama, in the Lone Star State's bizarre system, winning the caucuses and getting more delegates). Clinton also won Nevada (though again, because of the unusual way delegates are assigned in the Silver State, Obama ended up ahead on the delegate prize). Clinton soundly defeated Obama in Puerto Rico. But Obama did well among Hispanics in the general election, especially after GOP nominee John McCain had backed away from his support of a sweeping immigration reform bill.

Latinos aren't a homogenous group, and they are gettable by the right Republicans. Many Hispanics are Roman Catholic, and share some of the social views of conservatives. But the Latino Decisions poll suggests that GOP opposition to immigration reform—in particular, the DREAM Act, which would give provisional legal status to the children of adults who came to America illegally—and then permanent legal residency to the young people who serve in the military or get a college degree. The idea behind the DREAM Act is to forgo punishing children whose only crime was to be born to people who broke immigration rules.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

In the survey, 30 percent of Latinos said creating more jobs was at the top of their policy wish-list—not surprising, in the current economy. But a plurality—42 percent—said immigration reform and the DREAM Act were their main priorities. Republicans argue that Latinos care about things far beyond immigration, and that's certainly true. But the poll suggests that finding a path to legal citizenship is still paramount.

The individual GOP primary candidates don't fare well in the poll. Net favorable ratings were just 28 percent for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and only 22 percent for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Perry had dubbed opponents of the DREAM Act heartless, which should have earned him points with Hispanic voters. But he apologized for the characterization later. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has a net approval rating of 13 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul clocks in at 16 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as a net approval rating of 22 percent, pizza magnate Herman Cain gets 15 percent approval, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum musters just an 11 percent net approval rating. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman earned only an 11 percent net favorable rating from Latinos, but in his defense, he has the same trouble with Hispanic voters as he has with the rest of America: 53 percent have never heard of him.

Obama may still need to do some hand-holding, cajoling and rallying of his base to turn out the numbers he'd need for re-election. But so far, it doesn't look like Hispanic voters, at least, are jumping to the other side.

  • Read: Don't Assume the Hispanic Vote Is a Democratic Lock
  • Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination?
  • Peter Roff: Obama Losing Crucial Latino Votes