LAS VEGAS - Republican caucus attendees in Nevada chose Mitt Romney to carry their standard (and delegates) in the campaign for the presidential nomination, and all eyes there are now fixed on November's general election. Republicans are betting that discontent among Latino voters over the failure to pass immigration reform will mean fewer votes for Barack Obama, while Democrats wager that Republican anti-immigrant rhetoric will work in the president's favor at the polls.
But if anything is worth highlighting from Saturday's caucuses, it was the drop in turnout among Republican Latino voters relative to 2008, explained pollster Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions.
In the 2008 caucuses, 8% of Republican voters were Latino, according to entrance polls. This year, only 5% were Latino.
"We know that Nevada has the fastest growing Latino electorate of any state. And despite the fact that
Latinos are getting bigger and bigger in Nevada, they are becoming a smaller and smaller part of the Republican Party," Barreto said.
This is consistent, he added, with the 2010 elections, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won 90% of the Latino vote.
Nevada will be a competitive state in November, Barreto declared, but the drop in Republican caucus participation is a sign that "Latinos are very reluctant to go into the Republican Party."
In Nevada, he indicated, Hispanics continue to align themselves primarily with the Democratic Party, which "has done a decent job at outreach." Reid's reelection in 2010 helped solidify this trend, as the anti-immigrant positions of his Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, "has had lasting effects" in encouraging Latinos to continue to register as Democrats.
But Barreto added that Democrats face the challenge of recreating the remarkable enthusiasm and passion of Hispanic voters in 2008, even though "Latinos are definitely leaning at this point towards the Democratic Party and towards president Obama."
"The question is going to be turnout. How many Latinos vote. And that is what the Democrats and the president need to focus on heavily, taking their message to the community, talking about where they had failures, how they are going to address that, what they've done to help Latinos. If they can make those connections, then that will help," Barreto explained.
Barreto's bottom line: in the next nine months, Obama and the Democrats have to close "a mobilization and enthusiasm gap."
The conversations I had with a few Hispanics on the outskirts of a Mexican market in Las Vegas confirmed the existence of this enthusiasm gap, and demonstrated how the immigration issue--and, specifically, the lack of comprehensive immigration reform--figures prominently among Latinos' central concerns, alongside the economy, jobs, and the housing crisis.
"I feel disappointed," said one voter, who supported Obama in 2008 but won't vote for him this year. She's considering jumping to Romney, she says, because even though the Republican frontrunner doesn't support reform, "he can boost the economy."
Others, who are undocumented, lamented the effects the lack of reform has had. "We are with whoever gives us reform," one said. "It's the same thing every year, they promise and they don't do anything and do you know how much pain we're in?" said another.
But others, like Alejandro Martinez, say that things don't get fixed from one day to the next and that Obama faced fierce opposition from Republicans on immigration. He'll vote for Obama again "because he deserves a second chance."
Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, thinks this is the mindset of many Hispanic voters in Nevada--including himself. In 2008, despite being a Democrat, Romero voted for Republican presidential candidate John McCain because he had a proven record of support for immigration reform.
Now he plans to vote for Obama, because Romney's positions--opposition to comprehensive immigration reform and a promise to veto the DREAM Act--send a clear message to Latino voters that he won't stand with them on defining issues.
Romero pointed out, however, that the number of Latino voters registering as independents is on the rise. According to him, the most recent statistics from Clark County, where the bulk of the state's voters are concentrated, "report that there are 94,000 voters with Spanish surnames: 60% of them are Democrats, almost 17% are Republicans and if you add up the percentages of the rest of them, the number of independent voters is greater than the number of Republicans," Romero said.
This confirms just how competitive Nevada is. Republicans don't expect to win a majority of the Latino vote here, but they hope to put a dent in Obama's Hispanic support.
But that will depend on the candidate and his message--and if that candidate is Romney, his message of "self-deportations" and a DREAM Act veto won't resonate with Latino voters in Nevada.
Nor did it resonate with René Cantú, a Republican who did not support Romney at his caucus on Saturday.
Initially he supported Rick Perry, "who got beaten up for showing a more compassionate point of view on immigration."
For Cantú, immigration "is an important issue, but not the most important." But Romney's current positions are hardly to his liking.
He doesn't support him right now, but he anticipates that will change. "I think that after the primary, Romney will soften his position, and all this is just rhetoric."
It remains to be seen if this rhetoric has already had a lasting effect in driving Latino voters in Nevada away from the Republican Party.
Now, the campaign moves to Colorado--and speculation about the role of Latino voters moves with it. It's not just in Las Vegas that both parties are placing bets on the Latino vote.
Follow Maribel Hastings on Twitter: www.twitter.com/maribelhastings