SALT LAKE CITY — President Barack Obama's shift on immigration policy last week sent Republicans scrambling and returned focus to an increasingly powerful constituency — Latino voters.
Latinos made a difference in 2004, when former president George W. Bush won over 40 percent of their vote, and again in 2008, when 67 percent of them voted for Obama. With significant populations in battleground states and experts predicting they could be this year's swing vote, Latinos are being courted by both parties.
Obama has the clear advantage — almost two-thirds of Latinos support him and many experts believe it may not get better than that for the president. For him it's a matter of getting Latinos to the polls, as they vote less than any other racial/ethnic group. Despite Obama's lead, he still has work to do.
But Obama's shift in policy — which would give certain young illegal immigrants a two-year deportation deferral and the ability to apply for work permits — played very well with registered Latino voters and could increase enthusiasm among unregistered voters as well, Manzano said.
While the Obama campaign claims the move was not politically motivated, it certainly was politically convenient and could provide a significant boost for the president.
Meanwhile Romney is lagging significantly, hampered by personal and Republican immigration policies that are tough for Latinos to swallow. Romney won't win the Latino vote, but cutting into Obama's margin with Latino voters would help him win swing states.
In what may be an effort to do just that, Romney recently released a Spanish-language ad focusing on the economy. The spot was a rehash of an earlier English ad that takes Obama to task for saying the private sector is "doing fine." In recent weeks his campaign has released other ads and web videos with the message that Latinos have been disproportionally hurt by the economic recession.
This week the Obama camp released its own Spanish-language campaign ads featuring popular talk show host Cristina Saralegui. Known as the "Spanish Oprah," Saralegui explains to viewers how Obamacare will benefit Hispanic families.
The Obama campaign also spent some $2 million on a series of ads showing campaign volunteers talking with Latino families about their own concerns with education and health care. Pro-Obama PACs have also poured millions of dollars into their own, more negative Spanish-language spots, leaving Romney sorely outspent thus far when it comes to advertising to Latinos.
The former Massachussets governor is working hard on other fronts, however. In early June, the Romney campaign announced Juntos con Romney, or Together with Romney, a Latino outreach team headed by former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. The Romney campaign is also training Spanish-speaking surrogates and is reportedly working on a new Spanish-language ad campaign with a major Hispanic advertising firm.
On the heels of Obama's surprise policy shift, Romney promised he would work on his own immigration policy as soon as he was sworn in, offering the long-term stability of legislation over executive orders like Obama's, which he said "can be reversed by subsequent presidents."
And on Tuesday, Romney told reporters his vice presidential search team is thoroughly vetting Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as a running mate. A rising star in his party and the son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio could heavily influence the Latino vote in November if he is on the Republican ticket.
With immigration re-entering the political discussion and more issues affecting Latinos being addressed — both Obama and Romney are slated to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials this week — voters can only expect the competition for Latino votes to heat up as November approaches.
Justin Ritter is a freelance journalist living in Houston, Texas. He has reported on municipal and statewide elections in Utah and contributed to KBYU-TV's 2010 Election Special Report.
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