If the latest Latino Decisions tracking poll is correct, then President Obama is on track to win a historic percentage of Latino voters. Among likely Latino voters, 73 percent say they plan to vote for Obama, versus 24 percent for Romney and three percent undecided. Compared to 2008, Romney is underperforming John McCain by seven points, while Obama is overperforming his totals by five points.
If this holds, Obama will have won a larger percentage of the Latino vote than any Democratic president since Bill Clinton, who won 72 percent in his 1996 landslide reelection. The difference, of course, is that Latinos were only 5 percent of the electorate in 1996; this year, they’re projected to be 10 percent of voters. Indeed, turnout doesn’t seem to be an issue. “Among likely voters, 55% say they are more enthusiastic about voting in 2012 than in 2008,” writes Latino Decisions, “74% of likely Latino voters say they are ‘very enthusiastic.’” They also note that at this proportion of the electorate, Obama’s lead is large enough to keep Nevada, Colorado, Florida, and Virginia in his column.
The obvious question is: “how did this happen?” The conventional wisdom is that Republican positions on immigration are to blame for the party’s abysmal ratings with Latino voters. With the exception of Texas Governor Rick Perry, every candidate in the GOP primary adopted intensely restrictionist positions on immigration, with Romney placing himself to the right of every other candidate, and embracing “self-deportation” as a policy goal. Republicans nationwide have touted Arizona-style policies as the right direction for the country. With few exceptions — most notably, Republicans in Texas and Florida — there’s been little serious outreach to Latino voters from the GOP.
This accounts for some — but not al l— of the Latino alienation from the GOP. Two other factors over the last four years stand out as prominent sources of discontent. The first is GOP opposition to health care reform. An estimated 30 percent of Latinos lack health insurance, and the community is more likely than most to suffer from obesity, cancer, diabetes and other afflictions. The Affordable Care Act would be a huge boon to Latino families, many of whom would benefit from the health law’s expansion of Medicaid. It’s almost certainly true that Republican opposition to every aspect of Obamacare has harmed Republicans with a critical number of Latino voters.
The second (and possibly more important) thing is the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that Latino voters, despite their diverse backgrounds, act with a sense of linked fate — they reward politicians that support the broad interests of Latino voters, and oppose those that don’t. It’s not just that Obama earned greater Latino support by nominating Sotomayor — Republicans lost standing with Latinos because of the nature of their opposition to Sotomayor.
A whole host of conservatives and Republicans denounced the “frighteningly smart” Sotomayor as little more than an affirmative action hire, while Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions denounced her as an “extremist” because of her service with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education fund, a well-regarded nonprofit group. Odds are good that this fight left a lasting, negative impression on Latino voters. If the best of the best — Princeton grad, federal judge — isn’t good enough for those hostile to Latino immigrants, then will Republicans ever be able to accept Latinos?