Paul Harris, Guardian (London), May 19, 2012
Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney has launched an aggressive campaign to woo Hispanic voters away from Barack Obama.
A Spanish-language version of a campaign ad will air this week in key states — the first political ad produced by the Romney campaign since his last Republican rival dropped out of the race.
The ad is called Día Uno, which means day one in English, and features Romney speaking a Spanish-language version of the “I approve this message” tagline that all American presidential candidate put on official TV ads. “Soy Mitt Romney y apruebo este mensaje,” the former governor of Massachusetts says stiffly.
The move comes only days after the latest figures released by the US Census showed that for the first time there are more Hispanic and black and other minority babies being born in America than white ones.
Among US minority groups Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing, now making up more than 50 million people, which is one in six Americans. Romney’s campaign is keen to make inroads into the demographic group, often stressing socially conservative issues such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage that chime with the Republicans‘ traditional white base as well as often devoutly Roman Catholic Hispanics.
There are also some senior Hispanic figures in the party. Marco Rubio is a junior senator in Florida of Cuban background. He is popular with the Tea Party base and often cited as an example that the Republican’s conservative message can resonate with Hispanic groups.
In lists of Romney’s possible vice-presidential picks, Rubio is frequently mentioned and seen as a way of attracting Hispanic voters. Another possible running mate would be Susana Martinez, the Republican governor of New Mexico. The party has also appointed Hispanic outreach directors in six battleground states. Romney himself even has personal links to Mexico as his father, George Romney, was born there.
But the task facing Romney is not going to be easy. In 2008 Obama won 67% of the Hispanic vote compared with Republican John McCain’s 31%. A Pew Research poll found that Romney’s position had weakened, with his support at 27% while Obama’s remained steady at 67%. A Quinnipiac University poll found Romney’s support even lower at 24%.
Those figures show that a socially conservative message, based on faith and traditional families, is not quite enough for Republicans to do well in Spanish-speaking America. “There is a faith-based small “c” conservatism that could make Hispanics into natural Republicans. But the problem for Republicans is that Hispanics are also liberal on issues such as social welfare and the role of government,” said Professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.
But an even bigger issue for the Romney campaign when it comes to wooing Hispanic supporters is immigration. During the nomination race Republican leaders jockeyed with each other to come up with the strictest plans for a border fence until Herman Cain even suggested building an electrified fence.
“There was some crazy stuff coming out,” said Bowler. In eventually winning the contest, Romney tacked far to the right, opposing a law that would have allowed the children of illegal immigrants to go to college, praising a controversial Arizona law that many critics have said is racist, and urging illegal immigrants to “self-deport” from America before a planned crackdown on benefits they can claim.
None of those sentiments will have endeared him to Hispanic voters. Indeed they even infuriated Martinez, who criticised Romney in an interview with Newsweek. “Self-deport? What the heck does that mean?” she told the magazine. She went on to say Republicans needed to change their language and adopt more nuanced policies on the issue. “I have no doubt Hispanics have been alienated during this campaign. But now there’s an opportunity for Governor Romney to have a sincere conversation about what we can do and why,” she said.
It will not be easy. Any softening of Romney’s hard line on immigration will see him anger his Tea Party base. However, many experts believe the long-term demographic trends of America mean the Republicans will have to work out a way of appealing to Hispanic voters eventually or potentially face a permanent exile from the White House.
“The Republican party is becoming older, whiter and more Protestant at a time when America is becoming younger, browner and less Protestant,” said Bowler.