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Romney's Latino Strategy Comes Into Focus

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Having alienated Latino voters in the primary with hard right immigration positions and dehumanizing anti-immigrant rhetoric, what will GOP nominee Mitt Romney and his surrogates do in the general election to attract the 40% of Latino votes experts say he needs to win the presidency?

Many have argued that Romney would reprise his flip-flopping ways and pivot back to the center on immigration. But, despite a non-committal nod to Marco Rubio's much-discussed and not-yet-seen version of the DREAM Act, that's not happening.

Instead, recent events strongly suggest that Mitt Romney's campaign and surrogates may have decided on the three-pronged Latino strategy heading into the general election:

  1. Focus solely on the economy to compete for the small slice of Latino voters willing to look past anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies;
  2. Have the candidate avoid discussing immigration, even when speaking before Latino audiences; and
  3. Rely on Republican surrogates and Super PACs to attack President Obama on his immigration record in an effort to suppress turnout among Latino voters who are disappointed with President Obama's failure to pass immigration reform and his Administration's recorddeportations.
Only talk about the economy

Earlier this month, Dan Balz and Philip Rucker of the Washington Post reported that Romney advisors believe they will be able to shore up their poor standing among Latino voters "by focusing on economic issues in their messaging to the Latino community, believing that will overcome damage done during the primaries by Romney's hard-line stance on immigration." Apparently, the Romney Team believes it can peel off a small slice of Latino voters for whom immigration is not a major issue - and who might be willing to look beyond the candidate's anti-immigrant policies and the GOP's harsh rhetoric.

Could this work? On the margins, perhaps, but mostly this is wishful thinking. Yes, Latino voters, like everyone else, view fixing the economy as job one for the next president. But, as Latino Decisions polling demonstrates, the vast majority of Latino voters see immigration as a threshold issue and express an unwillingness to vote for a candidate they view as anti-immigrant - even if they agree with that candidate on the economy.

Ignore immigration. Just ignore it.

Romney was more than willing to jump into the immigration debate when during the GOP nomination battle. He used it used it to burnish his conservative credentials and as a wedge against Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. But, heading into the general, we predict he's going to avoid it as much and as long as he can.

This week provided a shining example when he delivered to a highly publicized speech to the conservative-leaning Latino Coalition. Here are some of the best reactions showed up on twitter.

NBC's Chuck Todd wrote: "Romney's speech to Latino business leaders is focused on his education policy rollout. 'immigration' does not appear in text."

From BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins: "No. of times he said 'immigration': 0.
RT @mviser: "Speaking to the Latino Coalition, number of times Romney said "Latino" or "Hispanic": 3."

Sam Youngman from Reuters: "Here's what Romney said to Latino Coalition about immigration: ."

Afterwards, Ana Navarro, who advised former Republican nominee John McCain on Hispanic issues, told Beth Reinhard of National Journal:

You don't have to talk about immigration every time you go in front of a Latino audience, but you have to talk about Latinos. Romney got panned for that in the Hispanic press. Every demographic wants to be acknowledged and courted.

Undoubtedly, Romney will have to engage on the topic at some point during the next five months of the general election. What will he say when he does?

We predict he will try to downplay his Minuteman-sounding primary talk of "illegals," distance himself from his embrace of Arizona's "show me your papers" law as a "model for the nation" and avoid reiterating his pledge to veto the DREAM Act. Instead, he'll probably retreat to vague messaging about plans to "enforce our laws" and "modernize legal immigration" in hopes of communicating to swing voters and business interests he's not the nativist he played during the nomination fight.

Romney will try, in other words, to ignore the elephant in the room: what to do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country, including some two million who came here as young kids.

Try to discourage pro-immigrant Latino voters from voting at all

The final plank of the Romney Latino strategy that seems to be taking shape is the most troubling of all: depress the Latino vote by bombarding passionately pro-immigrant Latino voters with ads attacking President Obama's immigration record - both for his failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform and for his Administration's record number of deportations. Importantly, the campaign will have deniability regarding this tactic because Republican surrogates and Super PACs will do the dirty work.

The goal here is not to convince these voters to switch to Romney. They won't. Instead, it's designed to exploit their pronounced lack of enthusiasm in 2012 in hopes they don't vote at all. Already, Republicans, who are masterful at message discipline, have been unified in hammering the "broken promises" and record deportations talking points. Now, outside groups and Super PACs are joining the fray. A new effort aimed at Latino voters in Nevada, spearheaded by the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, goes so far as to make the claim that President Obama is "worse than Joe Arpaio" on immigration. Look for Karl Rove, the mastermind of Crossroads and no stranger to the importance of Latino vote, to turbo charge the attack on Obama's immigration record with Spanish-language advertising in hopes of discouraging low-propensity Latino immigrant voters.

On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" earlier this week, political journalist John Heilemann forecast just such a strategy:

"This is going to be a viciously negative campaign against Obama by both the Romney campaign and the Republican super PACs that will attack him from the left, saying deportations are at an historic high with Obama; he's failed. They're going to attack him from the middle and say he failed on immigration reform. They're going to attack him from the right on gay marriage, and the goal of that campaign I think is going to be not to close the vote shares but just to push Hispanic turnout down, try to drive the overall vote total down and be able to not be hurt as badly if they can get Hispanics just to stay home."

Could it work? Adam Serwer at Mother Jones points out:

Obama has a large lead over Romney among Latinos, but the ratio of the Latino vote that Obama gets is less important than the number of Latinos who would have voted Obama but stay home out of disappointment with the administration.

Polling released this past week by NBC News/Telemundo captures the challenge for both the President and for Romney. Obama leads Romney by a 61-27% margin among Latino registered voters. However, as the recap accompanying the poll notes:

The challenge for Obama...will be turning out these voters with only a combined 68 percent of respondents saying they are highly interested in the upcoming election (compared with 81 percent of all American voters who expressed high interest in the NBC/WSJ poll).

Meanwhile, the DREAMers - young undocumented immigrants who are Americans in all but paperwork - are both calling out Romney for his extremism and calling on the President to protect them from the DHS deportation mill. During last week's "Right to DREAM" rallies, young undocumented immigrants, fresh from confronting Romney for his promise to veto the DREAM Act, held signs that read, "Obama: You can't court us and deport us."

A challenge and an opportunity for the Obama campaign

So, the Romney playbook with respect to Latino voters is coming into focus. Though ugly and cynical, it does represent a challenge to the Obama campaign, for OFA needs not only a huge margin from Latino voters, they need a huge mobilization of them.

The good news is that Obama has a commanding lead and cards to play to improve turnout on his behalf. He can give Latino voters discouraged with the Administration's immigration record more reasons to turn out to the polls. He can provide DREAM Act-eligible young people with protection against deportation and work permits so they are given a chance to contribute to the country they call home. And he can insist that the Secretary Janet Napolitano and the Department of Homeland Security significantly improve the on-the-ground implementation of his year-old enlightened policy directives aimed at protecting the civil rights and family unity of hard working immigrants with strong claims to stay to America.

Romney has painted himself and the GOP into a corner with Latino voters. We'll soon see if the President keeps him there - or whether this new three-pronged approach works. Either way, the Romney campaign has finally laid out its Latino vote strategy. It's Obama move now.