FORT WORTH — Mitt Romney brought his message directly to Hispanic voters on Tuesday, promising that as president he would “make sure this economy is good for all Americans, Hispanics and otherwise” as he campaigned in heavily Hispanic Texas, the state that put him over the top in the delegate race for the Republican nomination.
The former Massachusetts governor lags behind President Obama in support from Hispanics, but he senses an opening around the economy. In his campaign stop here, Romney said the “Obama economy” has been “particularly hard on Hispanic businesses and Hispanic Americans.”
“Did you know that the rate of unemployment among Hispanic Americans rose last month to 11 percent? And that the people in this country that are poor, living in poverty, one out of three are Hispanic American?” Romney said, speaking at Southwest Office Systems, a Hispanic-owned business. “And among young Hispanic Americans the poverty rate is 30 percent? And Hispanic Americans in . . . large measure have looked to entrepreneurs and innovators and small business to get going, but this has been such an . . . anti-small business, hostile to small business environment that it’s been harder for those businesses to open up their doors and to hire more people.”
The Romney campaign released a Spanish-language ad on the web called “Dismal,” citing similar statistics. The Obama campaign has launched television ads targeting Latinos in Colorado, Nevada, and Florida that highlight the stimulus, the auto bailout and the health care law, which polls show remains popular with that group.
Romney acknowledged last month at a private fundraiser that a big win for Obama among Latinos would “spell doom” for his party.
In 2004, Republicans made some inroads with Latinos, with President Bush earning 44 percent of the vote.
But picking up that trend will be difficult for Romney, even given the economy, because “softer” issues like personality and background could come into play.
“He is going to face a lot of challenges, there is no question,” said Matt Barreto, political scientist at University of Washington and co-founder of the independent polling firm Latino Decisions. “Part of it is class and environment-based. Mitt Romney didn’t grow up or serve in an area with a lot of Latinos, and that is a significant difference than Bush and McCain, and it’s very obvious that he has an extremely shallow personal history with the Latino community. When he says that Latinos are hurting, so they will vote for him, there is actually a disconnect between his policy proposals and what Latinos actually support.”
The gap between Obama and Romney is significant: An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll released in May shows Obama leading Romney 61 percent to 27 percent among Latinos. And 35 percent of Latinos have a negative view of Romney, compared with 23 percent for Obama.
Among Latino Republicans, there has been some disappointment that Romney hasn’t reached out enough yet, according to Ana Navarro, who was the Hispanic outreach coordinator for the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“I think he has room to grow. I do know that the Romney campaign understands the importance of the Latino vote, and so I think he does have to do more,” said Navarro, who is based in Florida. “We have to see more Hispanics as part of his senior staff. But I give him the benefit of the doubt and I recognize that the primary has been a resource-consuming effort.”
The primary also provided Democrats with a highlight reel that will surely be replayed as the Obama campaign seeks to solidify its lead among Latinos by pointing to Romney’s conservative comments on immigration and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
In running against Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom many prominent Republicans viewed as having policies that could help Republicans attract Latino voters, Romney ran to the right, coming out against the Dream Act, which would give young adults who were brought here as the children of illegal immigrants a pathway to residency status if they attended college or served in the military. Romney also spoke out against the nomination of Sotomayor, the first Latino on the Supreme Court, accusing her of judicial activism.
Asked in an interview with Univision News last November what his strategy would be in drawing contrasts between his administration and a Republican nominee, Obama suggested Democrats had plenty to work with.
“We may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim,” Obama said. “We won’t even comment on them, we’ll just run those in a loop on Univision and Telemundo, and people can make up their own minds.”
Navarro said Hispanics would vote overwhelmingly on the economy and that Romney should hammer away on the jobs issue.
“He has to stick to his mantra and say it’s about the economy and Hispanics aren’t stupid,” Navarro said.