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Is Newt Gingrich Really Better Than Mitt Romney Among Hispanic Voters?

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Newt Gingrich's recent rise in the polls has been accompanied by a lot of chatter about the implications of his potential nomination on the general election.

Gingrich's slightly more reasonable stance on immigration (which would spare law-abiding immigrants who have been in the country for 20 years from deportation, but wouldn't offer a pathway to citizenship) has some analysts arguing that he would fare better among Hispanics in a general election. The former Speaker's Hispanic outreach program and his efforts to learn Spanish have also been cited as reasons why he might have an advantage over Mitt Romney among this important demographic. Some are even saying that Gingrich's advantage with Hispanics could be enough to "slice into Obama's base in key states in the Mountain West."

This line of reasoning is decidedly unconvincing. While the Republican Party -- if it hopes to make inroads with Hispanic voters -- would be well-advised to temper its extremist rhetoric on immigration, many Beltway pundits are missing the biggest point of all: Hispanics don't vote based on a single issue alone. And if they did, it would be on jobs and the economy, or even education, but not immigration.

Since 2007, Project New West has conducted extensive public opinion research in Hispanic communities throughout the West. More recently, we've partnered with Project New America Latino, a newly launched research and strategy company focused on understanding the diverse and growing Hispanic community by state and region. What we've learned is that this is a diverse community with varying and highly nuanced views and issue priorities. Within the West, Hispanic communities vary by socio-economic characteristics like education, wealth, language preference, and profession. Simply stated, it's a mistake to paint this community with a broad brush, and assuming that one issue can win widespread support is a mistake.

This was apparent earlier this fall, when Project New West conducted a 3,000-interview regional survey in 6 western states (AZ, CO, MT, NM, NV, and WA). We found that just 9% of Hispanic voters in these states view immigration as their most important issue, compared with 59% who said jobs and the economy were most important. To put that in perspective, 8% of white voters said immigration was the most important issue in the same poll.

The regional poll also showed that Rick Perry -- a frontrunner at the time and a moderate on immigration--was actually less popular among Western Hispanics than Romney, who has struck an extremist anti-immigration tone this election cycle. Importantly, the poll was conducted in the immediate aftermath of a round of press that followed Perry calling opponents of in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants "heartless." That Romney was more popular --even in the midst of a high-profile episode that cast his opponent as a moderate -- shows that winning over western Hispanics requires more than taking the "correct" stance on immigration.

In PNW's regional research also showed that 61% of Hispanics said they'd be less likely to vote for a candidate who called Social Security a "lie" and a "failure," language similar to how Gingrich has described Congress's handling of Social Security.

This squares with research we've conducted, which shows that, while most Hispanic voters want to see a comprehensive federal solution to immigration, they are primarily concerned with issues of economic opportunity. They see a role for government in helping ensure economic opportunity and social mobility. Education is key to this belief. A 2010 poll PNW conducted in Nevada showed a majority of Hispanic voters would have favored raising their own taxes to stop cuts to public education. While we've never tested Gingrich's proposed remedy of hiring kids to work as janitors to save schools money, suffice to say it's unlikely to resonate with Hispanic voters.

To be sure, taking a reasonable stance on immigration is a must for the GOP if it plans to make inroads with Hispanics in the West in 2012. However, it will take a lot more than posturing on a single issue to win over this important and diverse demographic next year.