A Republican National Committee roundtable on Tuesday aimed at highlighting the GOP’s Hispanic get-out-the-vote effort ended up backfiring as the RNC’s director of Hispanic outreach struggled to explain to reporters Republicans’ message to Hispanics when it comes to immigration.
Part of the reason for the RNC’s difficulty: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) is “still deciding what his position on immigration is,” as RNC Hispanic Outreach Director Bettina Inclán termed it.
The episode underscored the difficulty for Romney and Republicans more broadly as they seek to court a key constituency this year.
Hispanics are the country’s fastest-growing minority group, with a 43 percent increase in population from 2000 to 2010, and are expected to nearly double their current 16 percent share of the population by 2050.
Polls show President Obama currently besting Romney among Hispanics by as much as a 47-percent margin; adding to the challenge for Romney is the fact that he has emerged from a GOP primary race in which he tacked to the right on immigration.
While Republicans are aiming to woo Hispanic voters with a scaled-back version of the DREAM Act spearheaded by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Romney has yet to take a position on the proposal.
Inclán, the former Republican National Hispanic Assembly executive director tapped by the RNC in January to serve as the party’s national Hispanic outreach director, kicked off Tuesday’s roundtable by introducing the RNC’s directors of Hispanic outreach in six states: Paulo Sibaja for New Mexico, Neri Martinez for North Carolina, Elsa Barnhill for Nevada, Pablo Pantoja for Florida, Lizbeth Norris-Cohen for Colorado and Jeyben Castro for Virginia.
(Not included among the six states was Arizona, where some recent public polls show a competitive race but where Republicans maintain their numbers show them with a confident lead.)
As Republicans and the Romney campaign have emphasized more broadly, “the number-one issue is jobs and the economy,” Inclán said.
Then, in the question-and-answer session, the conversation turned to the issue of immigration, and things got complicated.
“I know that you want to talk to (Hispanic voters) about being disappointed in Obama about the economy,” asked a reporter. “Is that something that you’ll address on immigration, and what would that message be?”
Inclán responded by slamming Obama for failing to enact immigration reform — and also for his administration’s record number of deportations.
“Hispanics are incredibly disappointed on President Obama and immigration,” Inclán said. “This is a president who as a candidate promised immigration reform; promised it in his first year. Three years later, we still don’t even have a plan. He talked about uniting families and all he’s done is deport more immigrants than any president in American history.”
Asked how the RNC would respond if Hispanic voters said that the GOP’s policy would be to deport even more people, Inclán did not answer but instead turned the focus back on Obama, who she argued “didn’t make the issues he promised the Hispanic community a priority.”
Did that mean that the GOP’s position is that Democrats have deported more people than Republicans would, asked another reporter.
Inclán responded that when it comes to immigration policy, she “can’t dictate what’s going to happen in the future.”
“I’m telling you — this election’s a referendum on this president,” she said.
Pressed about what she would say to an undecided Hispanic voter who concluded after watching the GOP debates that Romney’s proposals on immigration are too strict and are “out-of-line with what Hispanics want,” Inclán stumbled.
“I think as a candidate, to my understanding, that he’s still deciding what his position on immigration is,” she said. “So I can’t talk about what his proposal’s going to be, because I don’t know what Romney exactly — he’s talked about different issues. And what we saw in the Republican primary is that there’s a very diverse opinion on how to deal with immigration. So I can’t talk about something that I don’t know what his position is.”
Immediately, a reporter tweeted out Inclán’s statement that Romney is “still deciding what his position on immigration is.” The comment was retweeted by the Obama campaign, among others.
Democrats quickly pounced on the comment. The Obama campaign’s director of Hispanic press, Gabriela Domenzain, said in a statement that Romney “has proven time and time again that he is the most extreme presidential candidate in modern history on immigration.”
“His position may be inconvenient, but it has been clear,” she said. “He has promised to veto the DREAM Act, thinks all undocumented immigrants should self-deport, has called the anti-immigrant AZ law a ‘model’ for the nation and has paraded around the country with the nation’s leading anti-immigrant voices. Mitt Romney has decided to be the most extreme presidential candidate on immigration; Hispanics and all Americans have heard it loud and clear.”
Romney’s comments about Arizona being a “model” for the country were in reference to parts of the state’s E-Verify system, not to the controversial anti-illegal immigration law itself.
Inclán was then asked how Republicans can reach out to Hispanics “when you can’t talk about one of the most important issues they identify.”
Her response: It’s “almost insulting” to assume that the only thing Hispanic voters care about is immigration.
“People continue to pretend that the only thing that Hispanics care about is immigration,” she said. “Most Hispanics were born here in this country. We are American citizens. While immigration’s an important issue, we are American citizens.”
Then why raise the issue of Obama’s record on deportation?
“Because when you talk about a record, you talk about a record, and you look at the person’s record. ... That is part of his record and part of his broken promise on immigration,” Inclán said.
At that point RNC press secretary Kirsten Kukowski stepped in.
“To be fair, everyone, we just started transitioning with Governor Romney’s campaign a couple of weeks ago,” she said. “So, let’s take it back a step here and understand that the RNC’s lane in this campaign is to do voter outreach and get-out-the-vote efforts, and that’s what we’re going to do, and that’s what these people were hired to do.”
She added: “Mitt Romney is going to, I’m sure, talk an awful lot about jobs and the economy, how they affect Hispanics, and his immigration policy. But he has been our general-election nominee for approximately two weeks. So let’s all be fair and put this all in context that we’re sitting in May, May 8, of the general election.”
Later Monday afternoon, Inclán said via Twitter that she “misspoke” and that Romney’s “position on immigration is clear.” She linked to a page on the Romney campaign Web site that lays out the GOP nominee’s immigration stance.
That page, however, is at odds with at least part of the RNC’s message on Obama and deportation. It states that “instead of taking a strong stand on illegal immigration, (Obama) has ordered immigration officials to enforce immigration laws ‘selectively,’ leading to the dismissal of many deportation cases.”
Inclán had argued during Tuesday’s briefing that Obama had deported too many people, not too few.
Not only in terms of messaging, but also in terms of boots on the ground, Republicans appear to have significant ground to make up when it comes to courting Hispanic voters.
In introducing the six state directors, Inclán noted that “a lot of these people have on the ground for maybe about a week, so a lot of this is in development.” The Obama campaign, due in large part to the president’s advantage of incumbency, has been on the ground conducting Hispanic-targeted voter registration drives in battleground states for months.
RNC officials on Tuesday declined to say their target number for national Hispanic turnout. But the roundtable also raised another question: whether it’s in the GOP’s strategic interest to aim to increase Hispanic turnout in the first place.
In aiming to register and turn out Hispanic voters, does the GOP run the risk of bumping up turnout of a constituency that tends to lean Democratic?
“I think Hispanic voters in every state are important and we’re going to reach out to all of them. ... I’m very confident in the program,” Inclán said.