Latino Voters 2012: Exhilaration Over President Obama Turns To Dread And Disappointment

01/17/2012 07:17 am ET | Updated Jan 17, 2012

NEW YORK -- David Galarza remembers the heady days of the 2008 campaign season "like it was yesterday": the trip down from New York to central Florida's critical I-4 corridor in the final get-out-the-vote push for Barack Obama, the faces of hope and expectation.

"You could feel the energy," said Galarza, 42, a long-time labor activist who is Puerto Rican. "On election day, I talked to friends out early in the morning in New York, in Harlem and Bed-Stuy, in traditional African American and Latino strongholds. They were saying they had never seen anything quite like it. People were out everywhere. That happened all across the country. We won't see that again."

The euphoria in such communities propelled Obama to capture two-thirds of the Latino vote on his journey to the White House. Four years later, however, the exhilaration of that historic campaign has given way to dread within the politically- and demographically-diverse Latino electorate.

The proud and happy faces have been rendered somber and weary by the loss of jobs, benefits and homes. After years of toil and sacrifice, Latino families -- along with blacks and other minorities -- find themselves vanishing from the ranks of America's dwindling middle class.

"It's debilitating for all the people who believed all those slogans," said Galarza, who has no plans to campaign for Obama this year and isn't sure how he'll vote. "It's a colossal slap in the face."

Still, the anti-immigrant hard line, the perception of hostility, from the GOP field has left Latinos with few choices, creating the possibility that some will stay away on election day, according to voters and observers.

"The enthusiasm you saw in 2008 has been transformed into dread and fear in 2012 and that is driven a lot by a Republican Party that apparently has moved even more to the right," said political scientist Angelo Falcon, president of the New York-based nonprofit National Institute for Latino Policy.

The strident tone, particularly by Republican front runner Mitt Romney, even has some conservatives concerned. After Monday night's debate in South Carolina, for instance, Romney invited a trio of anti-immigration advocates - including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is best known for helping Arizona write a controversial immigration bill that was adopted in South Carolina and other sates - to do his political spin.

"There are many who still think you can run a campaign as if Latinos were not listening," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington D.C.-based Republican group. "That may have been the case 30 years ago. But Latinos now are really part of our society. They're listening... Whoever was responsible for giving the ultimate advice that led to (Romney's immigration) statements, I think doesn't have a clue about winning a presidential campaign in 21st century America."

The recession, which spared few except the wealthiest Americans, hit Latinos especially hard. Unemployment reached a high of 13.9 percent within the community in 2010. It has rebounded only slightly to 11.4 percent, compared to 8.5 percent nationally.

Median household wealth fell from $18,359 in 2005 to $6,325 in 2009 -- a 66 percent drop, the largest among all racial and ethnic groups, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The wealth gap between minorities and non-minorities is now the largest since the Census Bureau began releasing that information in 1984.

"There's a sense of hopelessness," said Moises Perez, a Dominican community activist in New York. "People are tense about what's going on in the nation and the idea that things are not going to get better for a very long time for immigrants. A sense of gloom and despondency ... that it won't get fixed. There's really no option."

The Latino community's intimate tie to immigration poses another trouble spot for Obama. The president failed to enact the sweeping immigration reforms promised during his campaign and instead deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants, a record that could hurt him come November.

"It's almost a promised land issue," Perez said.

For many, there is further discontentment that Congress under the president's leadership has still not passed the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide legal status to some undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children.

"We expected so many great and wonderful things from this president," Galarza said. "I'm so disappointed, especially when I hear Obama has deported more Latinos than George Bush."

Four years ago, Obama stressed the importance of immigration reform as a way to connect with Latinos. It was a strategy that helped earn him nearly 70 percent of the community's vote. Today, jobs and other economic issues have surpassed immigration as top concerns, according to the latest impreMedia-Latino Decisions poll.

A recent Pew Hispanic poll found that immigration was the sixth most important issue for Latinos. The top three were jobs, education and health care -- the same issues identified as most important by Latino voters before the 2008 presidential election.

Of course, it remains unknown how the heightened sense of frustration among Latinos will play out in the November vote. For years, the community has overwhelmingly favored Democratic candidates. In 2004, President Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote -- more than any Republican presidential nominee before. But, by 2008, those gains vanished and Sen. John McCain won only 31 percent of the Latino vote.

Latinos are the nation's fastest-growing minority, and the number of those who have registered to vote has swelled rapidly in crucial states such as California, Texas, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida.

"Take Florida," Aguilar said. "You don't win Florida on immigration. Unemployment and business issues are very important in Florida. With the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities -- especially the Puerto Ricans on the I-4 corridor -- they're U.S. citizens, they've been there. It's a different Puerto Rican community from the one in New York and Chicago. They're very independent. They can vote for Obama and they voted for Bush in the past."

In 2004, Bush carried 56 percent of the Latino vote in the Sunshine State. In 2008, Obama won 57 percent Latino ballots in a southern state where the group traditional supported Republicans, according to Pew Hispanic.

Aguilar added, "In the battleground states, there are three or four where Latino voters are going to be decisive -- New Mexico, Colorado, Florida and Nevada."

Overall, Obama's approval ratings have shown modest improvement, but still hover between 40 percent and 45 percent nationally. According to Pew Hispanic, 49 percent of Latinos approve of the job Obama is doing, down from 58 percent in 2010. The poll said 59 percent of Latinos disapprove of the deportations while only 27 percent approve. Among those who disapprove of his administration's deportation policy, 36 percent approve of the president's overall job performance while 54 percent disapprove.

Still, the late-December poll found that Latinos would favor Obama by wide margins over a Republican candidate in the presidential race. For instance, in a matchup with GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, 68 percent of Latino voters said they favor Obama while only 23 percent indicated they would vote for the former Massachusetts governor, according to the Pew poll.

While immigration isn't the most important issue to the majority of Latino voters, the harsh rhetoric that the issue has generated on the campaign trail so far could hurt Republicans' chances of capitalizing on Hispanic discontent.

Aguilar said most experts agree the GOP needs only 40 percent of the Latino vote to win the White House. But the extent of self-inflicted wound from the party's anti-immigrant positions is not yet known.

"Latinos, like other Americans, are upset with a president who raised a very high standard and didn't deliver," he said. "However, they may not be as excited with the alternatives. What could happen is they don't like the Republican candidate either. They may just stay home, sadly, many of them."

At a campaign appearance last week, Mitt Romney answered a question about drawing voters to the GOP with an unexpected mention of Latino voters.

"Perhaps one of the best tests would be to take a group like ... Latino Americans, and say, 'How can I convince more Latino Americans to, say, support a Republican?'" Romney said. "If I can do that, why, I will be doing well pretty broadly."

Until now, Romney's only acknowledgement of Latinos had come mostly in his tough talk on immigration. He has said that undocumented immigrants should be returned to their countries and that he would veto the DREAM Act. He blasted Texas Gov. Rick Perry for supporting a law that allowed children of undocumented immigrants to receive in-state university tuition, calling the law a magnet for the undocumented.

"I can't think of one Latino poor immigrant that risks his or her life crossing the border thinking, 'I'm going to send my son or daughter to Texas A&M so I can pay in-state tuition,'" Aguilar said.

Aguilar said he was "a little concerned" over what he called Romney's "Latino handicap" based on the candidate's statements on immigration.

"Certainly Republicans have an opportunity," he said, "but they have to be careful not to squander that opportunity."

Falcon said GOP "anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, nativist positions" could backfire for the party, motivating Latinos to turn out in force on election day in the same way that Obama's promise of change spurred them to vote four years ago.

"Whatever faults there are on the part of the Obama administration around the lack of comprehensive immigration reform and other things, the people who will be mobilizing voters for him, particularly in the Latino community, ironically, is going to be the Republican Party," Falcon said.

After campaigning for Obama in Central Florida's key I-4 corridor in 2008, Galarza said he won't take part in this year's get-out-the-vote effort.

"I don't feel it in my heart," he said. "We feel bamboozled. We were sold a bill of goods called change and we got taken for chumps."

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