As Mitt Romney stood before the USS Wisconsin Saturday morning, months of speculation about how far the presumptive Republican presidential nominee might go to court Latino voters came to an end.
Rep. Paul Ryan, 42, a white, Irish-Catholic Republican from Wisconsin with a reputation built around an encyclopedic command of the federal budget and a knack for framing domestic spending decisions in folksy but dramatic ways, is no Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Susana Martinez or Gov. Brian Sandoval. All three Latino Republicans occupied spots on the list of possible Romney running mates.
In opting for Ryan, Romney has done more than eliminate the possibility of the nation’s first Latino vice presidential nominee. Political analysts told The Huffington Post that in the careful parlance of national politics, the Romney campaign also confirmed that it likely views minority voters as an unwinnable portion of the electorate in 2012.
"Any notion of trying to make inroads into the Latino community -- Mitt Romney pretty formally gave up on that idea Saturday," said Angelo Falcón, president of the nonpartisan, New York-based National Institute for Latino Policy. "I don’t think even the campaign would pretend that they were ever hopeful about African Americans, but any sort of delusions about major outreach and Romney coming to the middle to appeal to Latinos, well, that ended [Saturday]."
Romney has proven unwilling to move toward the center, where he might appeal to a broader coalition of voters, and a conservative Latino vice presidential pick never really had the much-talked about capacity to draw new people of color to the increasingly white GOP in the first place, several analysts said.
The Romney campaign did not respond to questions about its minority voter outreach plans or the effect a renewed emphasis on domestic spending and the deficit might have on those voters.
Yet a Romney-Ryan ticket with candidates ready to talk about the details of domestic spending -- Romney’s short Saturday speech included a pledge to "return work to welfare" -- may still bring a campaign filled with coded language about race, ethnicity, national origin and the social safety net. It's a strategy that has in the past mobilized broad swaths of the white voters Romney now needs to win.
Opting for Ryan and doubling down on public spending means the Republican campaign needs virtually every type of white voter possible, said Rudolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University political scientist who studies public opinion and Latino political behavior. That includes working-class and poor white voters, women, business-friendly Republicans, social conservatives, Tea Partiers and Independents.
De la Garza said Romney’s strategy to win over those voters now has become clearer; the decision to mention welfare and work while introducing Ryan on Saturday was no accident.
In the week leading up to the announcement, the Romney campaign criticized a recent move by the Obama administration allowing states greater latitude in setting work requirements for welfare recipients. Romney has said repeatedly that the administration is attempting to eliminate work requirements.
While that assertion is inaccurate, welfare and old assumptions about who receives it have proven an effective motivator for white voters, said de la Garza, even though white Americans have long comprised the majority of cash welfare and food stamp recipients. Post-Great Recession, some who used to regard all welfare recipients as lazy cheats now depend on these programs, making Romney and Ryan's call for welfare cuts and stricter eligibility guidelines a more complicated political gamble.
"They will have to be careful, they can’t just use a shotgun," said de la Garza. "But if they can manage to frame this election as a referendum on the idea that we are spending too much and we’re spending it on people who do not deserve it, then yes, this will be an 'us versus them' campaign. They just won’t say it that way."
Welfare, along with immigration and wealth inequality, are strongly associated with people of color in the vast majority of white voters' minds, according to Anthony Greenwald, a University of Washington social psychologist who studies the role of race and ethnicity in politics. Others topics -- for example, health care and social security -- are not.
"It is going to be very interesting to see what issues the campaign focuses on," Greenwald said. "Will Romney and Ryan pick issues and talk about them in a way that cultivates the white vote? The potential is there."
It isn’t yet clear what, if anything, Ryan will say to appeal to Latino and other minority voters or to acknowledge their political concerns and priorities, said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist and co-founder of Latino Decisions, an independent polling firm.
Calling for drastic cuts or radical changes to social programs to reduce the budget deficit and finance tax cuts likely will not do the job. In a 2011 impreMedia/Latino Decisions poll, nearly 75 percent of Latino voters said they opposed Medicaid cuts in order to reduce the deficit, while just 22 percent supported the idea.
Romney did move swiftly on Saturday to back away from some of Ryan's budget ideas. But Romney’s own economic proposals -- to eliminate certain entitlement programs and slash the size of government and the ranks of public workers, while offering tax relief that includes upper-income Americans -- are virtually toxic for black and Latino voters, Falcón, the NILP analyst, said.
Black and Latino workers together make up more than one-third of the nation’s jobless, and a disproportionate share of black workers and Latinas work for state and local governments or federal agencies. Right now, about 25 percent of black and Latino senior citizens also depend on social security and its guaranteed and set monthly payout for 90 percent of their income, according to an AARP analysis.
Romney and Ryan's Saturday call to repeal Obamacare is also unlikely to appeal to voters of color. A larger share of Latinos lives without health insurance than any other group, and nearly half of the people expected to gain health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act are black or Latino, according to an Urban Institute study.
Romney made a shrewd decision when he picked Ryan, de la Garza said. Rubio, the Cuban-American Florida senator, may have won a narrow majority of Latino voters, 55 percent, in his 2010 Senate race, but he carried only 4 percent of black voters and needed the 55 percent of the white vote he garnered in order to win.
Any suggestion that putting Rubio, Salazar or Martinez -- or, more recently, Condoleezza Rice -- on the Republican ticket would have allowed Romney to stick with his positions but garner a substantial share of the Latino vote, or more than a sliver of the black electorate, has always been a figment of paid political operatives’ imaginations.
“The governor of Nevada [Sandoval], the governor of New Mexico [Martinez], even [Republican Senate candidate] Ted Cruz in Texas, they all got very small, very limited support from Latinos," de la Garza noted. "Conservative white voters delivered those wins."
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