Until this week, it seemed that Latinos were invisible in the Republican presidential campaign. Candidates spoke to an almost entirely white electorate, ignoring an important topic for Hispanics, that of immigration, which surfaced only marginally and with negative connotations.
In a telling moment during Monday's presidential debate, Juan Williams asked Mitt Romney if by taking the "hardest line of anyone on this stage on immigration reform....[are] you alienating Latino voters that Republicans will need to win the general election?"
Romney didn't flinch. He said something about Latinos being part of the whole population; that everybody wants a better country, that he loves legal immigration and we ought to "stop the flood of illegal immigration." (Yes, he used "flood" even though since 2009 illegal border crossings have become only a trickle and that for the first time in 60 years, "the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative.")
Romney was just repeating clichés for the benefit of the audience in South Carolina, the Fox TV viewers, and the pundits. But he certainly was not talking to actual Hispanic voters. In the debate, they were ignored by Romney and the other candidates.
Williams, booed and interrupted by the audience, didn't insist. No one really cared, because neither Iowa, with 5%, New Hampshire (3%), nor South Carolina (5%), have sizable Hispanic populations. But starting Tuesday, January 31, the date of the Florida primary, Hispanics, who comprise 22% of the population there--will be considered.
And this is why, in Thursday's debate in South Carolina between the surviving "Final Four" candidates, the "Deport Them All" position held previously by Romney had morphed into a more centrist "...we're not going to round them all up and deport them", and "those individuals who have come here illegally should be able to register in this country, have a temporary period to arrange their affairs, and return home and get at the back of the -- at the back of the line like everyone else."
Now, if you hear the sound of rapidly changing drafts, the addition of words in Spanish by the speechwriters, the shift away from deportation as a one-size-fits-all solution, it's because primaries in Florida and other states with considerable Latino populations are just around the corner.
And so, Newt Gingrich, a master in creating perceptions, claims in an ad that Romney is "Anti-Immigrant,"and on Thursday debate repeated his offer for abuelitos and abuelitas who came illegally 25 years ago who "maybe they go to your church!" to be able to stay. (But..."they will not be citizens!")
The Romney camp has already broadcast a video for the Florida market in which - without addressing much of anything--one of Romney's sons speaks in Spanish and several Florida politicians who are both Republican and Hispanic praise the former governor.
Just like the old days. In public they demand you speak English -- but expect that having your son speak in Spanish, their vernacular, will get votes.
Despite the best efforts of Latino Republican activists, the party appears to have difficulty embracing the community. Even though almost one-fourth of Florida's population is Latino, attention is not really shifting toward anything other than advertising that panders. In 2008, Obama obtained 67% of the Latino vote; and despite the support by so many Cuban voters who traditionally vote Republican, he even won Florida, thanks to Puerto Rican voters in central Florida who preferred him over John McCain.
Though polls show a softened support for Obama among Latinos due to higher Latino unemployment rates and record levels of deportations of undocumented immigrants, those who won't support him again will not vote Republican.
The most they can do is to abstain from voting.
At some point, Republicans should change their rhetoric, if they want to repeat even the meager 31% they received in 2008. And they will have the opportunity to address Latinos when the states with high levels of Hispanics have their turn to vote in the primaries.
To win over Latino hearts, many Republicans repeat a mantra: Latinos are natural-born Republicans. They agree with the GOP on religion, hard work, family values, small business, low taxes, the war on crime and opposition to gay rights. It remains to see how the surviving four candidates in the race will consider these basic metrics.
Florida is the epicenter of Republican Hispanics; 22% of the state's population is Hispanic. But in 2008, Barack Obama won in large part due to the support of 57% of Latinos. In 2004, George W. Bush received 56% of the Latino vote.
Nevada has a caucus on Feb. 4. Latinos, who represent almost one-half of the new population growth since 2000, comprise 26% of the state's population. Obama won there with the help of 78% of all Hispanics, while Bush took the state with just 40%.
Colorado also has a caucus on Feb. 7. Latinos are 20% of the population, and in 2008 helped Obama take the state with 61% of the Hispanic vote, less than the 68% that supported Kerry four years earlier. But while in 2004 the Hispanic vote was 8% of the total, in 2008 it jumped to a record 14%, allowing for Obama's victory by 7.5 points.
Arizona's primary is February 28. The state shares a reputation with Alabama as a hub of Republican anti-immigration laws and sentiment since Governor Jan Brewer's signing of SB 1070 into law in 2010. SB56 in Alabama, enacted the following year, is even harsher. But while in Alabama Latinos are only 4% of the total population of 4.8 million, in Arizona they comprise 30% of 6.4 million total. It's difficult to imagine heavy Hispanic support for any Republican candidate in either state.
Texas, with a primary on April 3, has a population that is 38% Hispanic. In 2008, 63% of them voted Democratic, while 73% of whites preferred McCain. In 2004, ex-Texas Governor George W Bush received half of the Hispanic vote.
New Jersey has 1.5 million Latinos, 18% of the total, and votes on June 5. In 2008 Hispanics favored Obama by 79%, much more than the 56% received in 2004 by Kerry.
California, which also votes June 5th, has 14.5 million Latinos, 38% of the total. In 2008 74% of them voted for Obama, more than the 63% who favored Kerry.
New Mexico has the largest rate of Latinos - 48% - in the population and also votes June 5. More Hispanics voted for Democratic in 2008 - 69% - than in 2004 - 56%. That and the increase of Latino voters from 32% to 41% of the total gave the victory to Obama.
And so, as they prepare for primaries in states with sizable Hispanic populations, Republican candidates continue to explore ways to reach Latinos. Ultimately, however, the price to obtain the Latino vote, which undoubtedly would include at least some softening of positions on illegal immigration, may be too steep, and could potentially trigger a backlash among Conservative voters. And even then, it may not be enough.