Obama Campaign Courts Latinos by Hitting Romney

Obama Campaign Courts Latinos by Hitting Romney

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - April 18, 2012

In discussing the launch of its first Spanish-language ads in three key battlegrounds Wednesday, the Obama re-election campaign revealed a key part of its messaging strategy for courting Latinos: Republicans are stalling White House immigration reform efforts and Mitt Romney is an extremist when it comes to those issues.

In 2008, Barack Obama doubled John McCain’s support among Hispanic voters, winning 67 percent of the vote. The president’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, said that this time around “our victory depends” on people in Latino communities “spreading the word about what’s at stake.” In order to mobilize those voters, some of whom may feel disenfranchised by a president who hasn’t signed an immigration reform bill, the Obama campaign is pointing fingers at his likely opponent.

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Obama campaign surrogates cited Romney’s promise to veto the current version of the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants if they attend college or serve in the military; his embrace of a self-deportation strategy; and his support for controversial state immigration laws as putting him on the wrong side of the debate.

The November election “is an opportunity in this country for the Latino community to send a message. The reality is that we look at this as the civil rights issue of our time,” New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez said on the call, referring to immigration reform. He said Obama is “completely committed to working with us in Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration law." San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro said Romney “would be the most extreme nominee that the Republican Party has ever had on immigration.”

Speaking to donors at a Florida fundraiser over the weekend, the GOP front-runner acknowledged that the deficit Republicans face among Hispanics “spells doom for us.” He suggested a “Republican DREAM Act” as a possible policy. (Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has already introduced his own version.)

Obama recently pledged to push for comprehensive immigration reform at the beginning of a second term, but some Hispanic leaders are wary. “When he was first running in 2008, he promised to make this a priority in his first year. . . . It’s another promise they’re making because they are getting closer to the election,” says Gus West, president of the Hispanic Institute. The non-partisan group is training activists in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas in order to register Latinos to vote and get them engaged in the political conversation.

When asked whether the political climate would even allow Obama to push immigration reform in a second term, Messina demurred. “There is only one reason” it hasn’t happened already, he said, referring to Republican opposition to the DREAM Act. Messina suggested Latinos wouldn’t blame the president for this (though detractors argue that Democrats controlled both the House and Senate during the first two years of the president’s term). “I think it is clear that Latino voters understand which party has been the roadblock in passing comprehensive immigration reform. Latino voters aren’t going to be fooled by ‘Oh, it’s the president’s fault.’ ”

Earlier this week, Republicans tried to make exactly that case when launching their own Hispanic outreach program in six battleground states. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters, "You have a president that has either lied or is so grossly negligent in following through on his promises in regard to immigration that he shouldn't be trusted.”

 Menendez (pictured) compared the RNC program to “selling snake oil in our community.”

Republicans acknowledge that they have to close the Latino gap if they want to win the White House (a recent Pew survey finds Obama leading among Hispanics by 30 points, mirroring 2008 levels) and that the tone of the immigration debate during the primary may have hurt the party. By the end of the month, the RNC will have deployed staffers to engage Hispanic communities in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia -- key swing states with growing Latino populations. They will work there to convince Hispanics that Republicans are best equipped to handle their concerns about jobs and the economy. (The most recent labor statistics show 10.3 percent of Hispanics are unemployed.)

The Obama team launched an offensive of its own Wednesday. The campaign will air television and radio spots in Colorado, Nevada and Florida that feature a Hispanic campaign organizer explaining how the president’s education policies -- such as increased funding for Pell Grants -- serve the Latino communities. The campaign also announced a national, grass-roots organizing group called “Latinos for Obama.” The campaign will make the case that under the current administration, millions of Hispanics have benefited from job creation, been lifted from poverty, have the means to afford college, and now have access to health insurance.

“Obama is using very local, very personal means versus the sort of big Republican machine with a national message,” says Denver-based political strategist Rick Ridder. “In Colorado, with Democrats being very fearful of being lumped with a sort of national agenda, it’s important to keep it on a local level.” Though the RNC is employing a localized strategy as well, Ridder says the message “also has to be in concert with people’s perceptions of what your candidate is saying, and Romney is getting some serious branding problems with the Hispanic community.”

While Republicans focus their Hispanic messaging on the economy and Democrats tailor theirs to education, health care and immigration, the Hispanic Institute's Gus West says the politics behind it all are apparent: “It’s amazing how the general [election] comes around and all the buzz is about the Hispanics.”

But, he continued, “in terms of what both parties have to say to Hispanics, I don’t see what either one of their messages are. [Given] the rhetoric we’ve heard in the Republican debates, the administration is the lesser of two evils. . . . The danger is, [Hispanics] stay at home”  on Election Day.

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

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