Four years ago in Iowa, Republican caucus-goers chose illegal immigration as the most important issue facing the country. The issue of how to deal with more than 10 million unauthorized immigrants is not playing a central role in the 2012 GOP race. But fresh numbers from the Pew Hispanic Center reveal that Republicans have made little progress since 2008 in courting a fast-growing Hispanic voting bloc, two-thirds of whom voted for Barack Obama.

In their basic political party identification – the continental plates of American politics – 67 percent of Hispanics identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, compared with 20 percent who lean toward Republicans. The 47-point Democratic advantage is larger than at any point in more than a decade of polls, including 2008, when 26 percent of Hispanics sided with the Republican Party. As we noted Thursday, Obama leads Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney by 68 to 23 percent among Hispanic voters in a hypothetical general election match-up.

The stakes for Republicans are high. The percentage of whites in the electorate dropped from 89 percent in 1972 to 74 percent in 2008, but John McCain received 90 percent of his support from whites. With more than eight in 10 black voters supporting the Democratic nominee in every recent election, Hispanic voters are key to expanding Republican support among the growing non-white population.

The Hispanic population grew from 35 million to 50 million in the past 10 years according to census data, four times the pace of the overall public. Today, about one in six Americans of all ages is Hispanic. Hispanics made up more than four in 10 New Mexico voters in 2008 and may count for more than one in six voters in Florida, Arizona and Nevada in 2012 according to Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, all swing states that could play a decisive role.

Potential inroads

Despite Republicans losing the Hispanic vote in every presidential election back to 1972, Hispanic views on abortion and religion, immigrant deportations and jobs offer potential avenues to winning Republicans support. Hispanics express greater opposition to abortion than the public overall, and more than six in 10 say religion is very important in their lives, compared with about half of all those who lean Democratic and just over four in 10 white Democrats.

Heightened unemployment among Hispanics – over 11 percent in recent government data – also might be a point of weakness for Obama. Nearly all Hispanic voters in the Pew poll said jobs are an important issue to them in the 2012 election, with half calling it “extremely important.”

Obama’s record high deportation rates have also concerned Hispanics. Nearly six in 10 Hispanics in the new Pew survey disapprove of Obama’s handling of immigrant deportations. Even so, no Republican candidate has called for fewer deportations, and Mitt Romney’s rhetoric on illegal immigration has gained wide attention in the Hispanic media, which could weaken appeals in a general election.

While most Hispanics say stricter border security and enforcement of current laws are important in dealing with illegal immigration, about nine in 10 support allowing young adults who were brought to the U.S. illegally to become legal residents if the go to college or serve a term in the military.

Delayed impact

The wide Democratic advantage among Hispanics may help Obama in 2012, but much of their electoral clout has yet to be realized, due both to lower eligibility and turnout rates. Only two in three adult Hispanics are eligible to vote, compared with over nine in 10 of all Americans. Even among those who are eligible, a mere 50 percent cast a ballot in 2008, compared with 65 percent of blacks and 66 percent of whites. As a result, the share of Hispanic voters in the electorate is increasing at a slower rate than the size of the Hispanic population overall.

Foreign policy poll watcher: Most weeks we will feature a special poll watcher analysis of American public opinion on foreign policy. The series will be cross-posted at  Foreign Policy Magazine’s Election 2012 page .

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