Does President Obama have a Hispanic problem?
In recent Gallup polling, his approval rating among Latinos dipped to 48 percent — the lowest mark of his presidency and a significant drop-off from the 60 percent approval among the group he carried as recently as January. Obama’s approval rating among Hispanics is now just seven points higher than it is among the general public in Gallup data, a major decline from earlier in his term.
And polling conducted by Resurgent Republic, a conservative-aligned group, shows Obama under-performing his 2008 totals in key swing states with large Hispanic populations.
In Florida, where Obama won 57 percent of the Latino vote in 2008, 48 percent of Hispanics say he deserves a second term. Ditto in New Mexico, where Obama carried Latinos with 69 percent but now sees just 58 percent of that voting bloc willing to say he should be reelected. (Worth noting: In Colorado, Obama’s numbers have held steady among Hispanics.)
Those numbers pose two important questions relating to the president’s 2012 prospects: What explains the drop-off among Hispanics? And is it possible that Latinos could be up for grabs in 2012?
On the first question, reasons abound.
The struggling economy has hit the Latino community particularly hard, with a Hispanic unemployment rate exceeding 11 percent — two points higher than the national average.
Obama’s dip among Hispanics correlates with his broader struggles with an electorate that has grown increasingly disheartened about the economy and the White House’s ability to make things better.
“President Obama’s decline among Hispanics, like most other segments of the electorate, is very real, and it is a consequence of his weak performance on the core issue affecting people’s attitudes — the economy,” said Danny Diaz, a Republican consultant.
The other major reason offered for the president’s Hispanic swoon is the lack of any forceful action on comprehensive immigration reform. On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama regularly touted the need for such a policy change, but he has been unable to deliver on the promise, with a now-divided Congress loath to tackle such a big and controversial issue.
Regardless of the reason for the erosion, the broader question looking ahead to 2012 is whether Hispanics will ultimately come home to Obama — despite some doubts — or whether the eventual Republican nominee will have a real chance at winning over a large swath of them.
Obama allies insist that stories about defections within his base are overblown, noting that although Hispanics may not be happy with everything the president has done (or, more accurately, not done) they will support him when he is matched against his GOP rival, who will almost certainly take positions that are anathema to most Latinos.
Joel Benenson, Obama’s lead pollster, pointed to an August tracking poll from ImpreMedia/Latino Decisions that showed that 72 percent of Hispanic voters said Republicans either “didn’t care” or were “hostile” to the Hispanic community as evidence that Obama’s number is likely to improve once Republicans pick their nominee.
“Latino voters see a very clear choice,” Benenson said, “between President Obama, who is fighting for measures to restore balance, fairness and the economic security for working and middle-class Latino families through programs like the Dream Act, job training programs and common-sense immigration reform versus a Republican lineup of congressmen and presidential contenders who vehemently oppose and denounce every one of these measures.”
(One notable Republican exception could be Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has sounded a largely moderate note on immigration during his presidential campaign; at a debate last week in Florida, he defended a measure he signed into law in 2001 that allows some illegal immigrants to attend state colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates.)
Obama is also ramping up his courtship of Latino voters — holding a roundtable for Hispanic journalists at the White House last week and addressing the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s annual gala dinner.
Although no one in either party thinks Obama will lose the Hispanic vote in 2012, the margin by which he wins it could be critically important — particularly because most analysts expect his support among young people, who along with Hispanics and African Americans formed Obama’s base in 2008, to drop somewhat.
Obama won 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008, the highest percentage for a Democrat since President Bill Clinton carried 72 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1996.
“The question that we won’t know the answer to for some time is whether they will vote for him at the same levels as 2008 or whether their sky-high vote for him will drop,” said Republican pollster Glen Bolger. “Those are the questions that likely have Democrat Latino strategists losing sleep at night.”