Pollster: Latinos Are Key to GOP Winning White House

Pollster: Latinos Are Key to GOP Winning White House

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - March 8, 2012

It is no secret that Republicans need to make up ground in attracting Latino voters: Barack Obama doubled John McCain's showing among this rapidly growing constituency four years ago. In fact, a longtime GOP pollster cautioned Thursday that if Republicans don't narrow this deficit, they can kiss their dream of winning the White House goodbye.

"If we don't do better among Latinos, we're not going to be talking about how to get back Florida in the presidential race; we're going to be talking about how not to lose Texas going forward," Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican strategist whose firm worked for Jon Huntsman, told reporters Thursday.

"And you can't possibly put the pieces together in the Electoral College if you concede California, New York, Florida and Texas to [Democrats]."

Ayers' warning comes on the heels of a Fox News Latino poll that showed none of the Republican presidential candidates attracting more than 14 percent of the support from this bloc when paired in a head-to-head matchup with President Obama. And though the GOP candidates have derided the president for his handling of the economy and his signing of the national health care reform law, the survey shows 73 percent of Latino voters approve of the job Obama is doing as president; 58 percent say he is doing a fine job handling the economy, and 66 percent view his handling of the health care issue favorably.

But the voters polled cited jobs and the economy as the most important issue facing them, and that, said Ayres, is where Republicans need to make inroads. If the GOP presidential nominee builds a compelling case that he understands how to ignite the economy and create jobs better than Obama, "he will get a higher share of the Latino vote than he is getting right now," said Ayres, who is confident that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will win the nod. "With the right message and the right outreach, we will do better, and probably because we're not stupid. We can count. It's pretty obvious that we can't continue to lose Latinos 2-1, the way we did in 2008, and still be competitive as a national party."

To do this, the nominee "cannot come across as someone who does not care about the concerns of Latinos," Ayres said during a newsmaker breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. The candidate has to send "a signal that we'd love to have you as part of our team."

But on the national stage, Romney has hardly positioned himself as a warm and fuzzy friend of Hispanics. His now infamous line from a candidates' debate last year -- "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake; I can't have illegals" -- didn't help him with this group, and he has embraced self-deportation as a national strategy. He also has the backing of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the architect of controversial immigration laws in Arizona and other states.

Obama isn't exactly doing well on immigration either -- the Fox poll found 41 percent of Latinos disapprove of the president's handling of this issue. (Guy West, who leads the Hispanic Institute, told RCP last the summer that Obama has let Latinos down on immigration, and that the issue weighs heavily on their minds even when jobs and the economy take precedence.)

Still, Ayres conceded that Republicans are losing the messaging contest: "The immigration debate and the tone of some people discussing it hurt the Republican Party. I don't think there's any way you can deny that." Ayers' research, though, suggests that Obama has work to do in Florida and finds him polling 11 points lower among Latinos there than he did in 2008. His data indicate Republicans can do well in the Sunshine State as well as in New Mexico and Colorado, other states where Obama is underperforming, he said. Still, there are eight long months until Election Day.

Polling aside, Ayers believes Republicans have a tool this year that they didn't have before: Latino leaders in the party such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. Ayres hinted that Rubio, whom he called the "Michael Jordan of American politics," would be a smart pick for the number two spot on the ballot in November -- a move that could make up for what Romney lacks in being a "natural politician," he said. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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