The articles of faith in the presidential campaign 2012 is that nothing that GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney can do will attract much support from Latino voters. President Obama virtually sealed the deal with Latino voters with his decision to stop deporting most undocumented youth. Picking Florida Senator Marco Rubio as his VP running mate would be little more than a naked, and maybe even desperate, stab at trying to add a few percentage points to whatever Latino support he's likely get. The Rubio VP ploy will fall flat because he is too untested, has personal baggage, and is too conservative.
That may be true. But it's also true that the GOP has also done a better job the last couple of years in upping the number of Latino Republicans that hold state offices. In 2006, Democrats had a top heavy bulge of 6 to 1 over Republicans in the number of Latino elected officials. Now the Democrat-GOP edge has sharply narrowed to 5 to 3. Even more worrisome to Democrats, Latinos hold the governorships and a Senate seat in the crucial battleground states of Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida. Obama won those states in 2008, and Latino voters played a huge role in making that win possible.
But Florida is another matter. The state and Ohio are still the two make-or-break states in the White House race. Despite the hits Rubio has taken, he's still popular and seen by many as an effective legislator. He also smartly has taken enough of a nuanced position on the Dream Act, the rights of undocumented immigrants born here, and immigration reform measures to get if not enthusiastic, at least, lukewarm applause from many Hispanic leaders. The Republican State Leadership Committee has certainly whiffed at the possibility of padding the number of Latino GOP officials and recently announced that it would pump millions more into recruiting Latino candidates to run for state offices in 2012.
The key is how big the issue of Immigration reform really will be in the fall. Some GOP leaders think it will be big and important enough that they've implored Romney to trump Obama and tell what he would do about immigration. Romney has been non-committal for a good reason. He's banking that the issue will not be a crucial issue in the election. That it will still come down to jobs and the economy and a referendum on whether Obama's programs helped or hurt the economy. And, in any case, despite the ramp up in Latino officials, the Rubio VP possibility, and current immigration developments, polls still show that Latino voters by a strong percentage will back Obama.
But percentages of one voting bloc standing behind a particular candidate don't necessarily win elections for that candidate. The 2012 presidential election will come down to numbers. A big part of Obama's win in 2008 was his ability to whip up voter enthusiasm among young Latinos into a near frenzy in Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida. He will have to do the same again in November. Simply getting the lions share percentage of the Latino vote without the numbers that go with it, would be problematic at best, and disastrous at worst for the Obama campaign.
Even without the aberration of Bush's huge bump up in the Latino vote in his election and reelection campaigns in 2000 and 2004, the GOP typically gets about one fourth to one third of the Latino vote and most importantly it gets that and more in Florida with the top heavy number of older, conservative Cuban-American voters. Even in a worse case, if Romney doesn't get one extra Latino vote than the GOP norm, it will still be a significant percentage and number of Latino votes. If he does better with Latino voters in one or two of the swing states, this could pose more of a threat to Obama. Rubio could be more than helpful here. He'd be a vital political asset in those states.
Romney's emphasis on small business, anti-welfare spending, and family values are still issues of importance to legions of Hispanics. Polls show that many Latinos are staunchly opposed to gay marriage and abortion, and in favor of family values and school prayer. Latino evangelicals, for instance, are growing in numbers and influence; the majority is conservative, even fundamentalist. That will also be helpful to Romney.
Romney must do a delicate balancing act. He can't afford to enrage Latino voters to the point where they mount a near holy crusade in the crucial battleground states to drown his White House hopes. He must do this while at the same time avoid sending wishy-washy signals to ultra-conservatives that he will be Obama lite on immigration reform. Rubio would fit the bill for him on both counts. And in that sense, might not be the total wash with Hispanic voters that many think.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.