If politics is a game of numbers, then presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney faces an election gauntlet with competing equations for victory.
In one, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney needs to draw the Republican base of increasingly older, white male voters and the lion share of Independent voters to the polls in November. In the other, he needs a coalition beyond that base, with a slice of Independent voters and a significant portion the nation's Latino electorate to win.
But the very "law and order," stance on immigration that appealed to Republican and Independent voters during the primary campaign will likely galvanize Latinos with disparate political interests against Romney, pollsters and political observers say.
"How do you expect someone to get a pat on the back, then a slap in the face?" said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C-based research organization. "That's just almost impossible politically."
Latinos lost more household wealth -- a measure of the cars, houses and cash a family holds after accounting for debt -- than any other single group during the recession, Lopez said. So, it should come as no surprise that Latino voters are, right now, deeply preoccupied with pocketbook and prosperity issues such as unemployment, education and health care.
“Immigration isn't the only thing that matters to Latino voters by a long stretch,” Lopez said. “But when you talk about immigration a certain way, it is the glue that seems to hold Latino voters together.”
The reason: almost 25 percent of Latino adults report that they know an undocumented immigrant personally or someone who has been detained by immigration authorities, Lopez said. And in 2010, Latino registered voters who indicated that they talked about immigration policy regularly with family and friends were also more likely to say they planned to vote.
The Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment Monday. Conservative and moderate wings of the Republican party are increasing public pressure on the campaign to define its stance on immigration.
Immigration hardliners such as Kris Kobach -- the Kansas secretary of state the Romney camp has recently begun describing as an informal advisor after first counting him among the campaign's immigration policy guides -- has recently warned Romney against softening his "law and order" stance on immigration. And, in the last three days, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a Republican and the first Latino to hold the nation's top law-enforcement post, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Tea Party Republican from Florida and the man some speculate may become Romney's running mate (despite his persistent denial he would accept the Vice President slot), have both repeatedly called on Romney to moderate the tough talk on immigration.
For his part, Romney has not backed away from his call for the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants to "self-deport" to their countries of origin. He also has not committed to a Rubio proposal to grant long-term visas to millions of young undocumented immigrants.
Rubio has not worked out the details of his plan, said Alex Conant, Rubio's press secretary, but it is already being described as a modified Dream Act. The Dream Act is a proposal that has been floated in Congress for more than a decade, namely by Democratic members of Congress, that would create a path to citizenship for young people brought to the country illegally by their parents, if the immigrants attend school or join the military.
Romney has said that if elected, he would veto any Dream Act bill that reached his desk. That is an appealing stance for some voters. Just over 75 percent of Republicans and nearly half of Independent voters said Romney would do a better job managing immigration than President Barack Obama, a Quinnipiac Poll released Friday found. And 46 percent of Independents said they would cast a vote for Romney if the election were held today.
But the same poll showed Romney and his position on immigration may be particularly unappealing to Latino voters. Overall, 64 percent of Latino voters indicated that they would vote for Obama if the election were held today. Just 24 percent would support Romney, the same share who indicated that they believe that Romney would do a better job on matters related to immigration.
"It's not that every Republican has a deep well of anti-immigrant sentiment," said Efrén O. Pérez, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who studies group political dynamics and the politics of immigration. "But what we do have is plenty of evidence that xenophobic messaging and get tough stances have a certain appeal to the party's base."
The Republican National Committee announced plans last week to dedicate staff and resources to six key swing states with large Latino populations. Those efforts are likely to have limited meaning, said Pérez.
The Romney campaign has demonstrated some interest in speaking to the economic concerns of Latino voters by highlighting what it sees as the Obama administration's failure to address rising Latino poverty and unemployment. But it has not done so in a way that risks alienating the campaign's base of Republican and Independent support. Romney is not talking about specific policies that might help Latino voters regain jobs, homes and other assets lost during the recession. So, immigration is likely to remain the lens through which Latino voters view Romney, Pérez said.
"Guess what, there are some of us who are poor and some of us who are distinctly middle-class," said Pérez, a former political consultant. "Some who are recent immigrants and some who have been in this country for three, four, five, six generations, before the border was the border. But when you put this kind of 'self-deportation, anti-amnesty,' language out there that has effectively been so imprecise that it can be interpreted as anti-Latino, that sort of campaign actually strengthens group ties. Latinos become the single-issue voting block that some people think they are."