11/17/2011 08:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama 2012 Campaign Chief Confident That Latino Support Will Hold Up In 2012

CHICAGO -- The man tasked with running President Obama's reelection campaign looked to be handling the pressure of such a big job rather well on a recent afternoon in the high-rise headquarters of the 200-plus person operation.

Jim Messina, a deputy White House chief of staff under Obama before taking this job, stood outside his office holding a wooden baseball bat and chatting with staff. As he sat down for an interview with The Huffington Post one year out from the 2012 election, the 42-year-old Montana native exuded confidence about Obama's chances, despite the many challenges facing the incumbent.

In particular, Messina was confident that the president who won overwhelming support from the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc -- American Latinos -- will retain their support.

"They understand this president has made a good-faith effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and the other side has had a debate on how to campaign against them in the primaries," Messina said.

Messina cited a poll by Latino Decisions for Univision as the latest evidence of Obama's advantage over each of the Republican presidential candidates. That survey showed Obama with a 43-percent edge over Republican primary frontrunner Mitt Romney among Latinos who are registered to vote, and similar advantages over the other candidates.

Obama beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 election, thanks in part to 67 percent support from Latino voters. McCain got only 31 percent of the Latino vote, down from the 44 percent who supported George W. Bush in 2004.

Latinos are the fastest-growing minority in the country, and the group is transforming the electoral map in 2012 and beyond. They make up 16 percent of the voting-age population now and are projected to reach 25 percent by 2050, and already make up 23 percent of the U.S. population ages 18 and under.

It's this dynamic that makes the southwest of the country an appealing environment for Obama and the Democratic party. In particular, Messina said, he has his eye on Arizona, which went for native son McCain in 2008 but may be more open to Obama in part because of 46 percent Latino population growth from 2000 to 2010. In addition, Democrats believe they will benefit from backlash to the passage in 2010 of a strict law requiring immigrants to carry identification papers and allowing local police to ask for proof of citizenship during routine traffic stops or arrests.

"We're very excited about our chances in Arizona, a state where a public opinion poll last week had us up five," Messina said. "It wasn't on the map last time, but it's up now."

Florida added roughly 250,000 voting-age Latinos between 2008 and 2010 to its nearly 19 million population, in comparison to only 30,400 white voting-age persons. And the Sunshine State will be a must-win for Republicans, because it is a swing state that would likely tip the scales in favor of Obama if he won its 29 electoral votes.

However, Messina said the Obama 2012 campaign is pursuing the same strategy that David Plouffe executed when he ran the 2008 campaign: create as many paths as possible to 270 electoral votes -- the magic number that clinches the presidency.

"The key to Florida is not having to rely on it. The key is having as large a map as we can have. We're going to compete in Florida, and we're going to dump the kitchen sink like everyone else," Messina said. "But we have more ways to 270 electoral votes than the other side, and my entire job this year is to expand the map as big as I can get it so we have many, many avenues."

"We feel good about our chances there," Messina said of Florida. "But we feel equally good about our chances in Virginia and Colorado and North Carolina and Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and a bunch of states Democrats have not contested."

Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina are all states where the Latino population has grown at a rapid rate over the last decade. But while Obama is poised to do well with this voting bloc, a new poll out Thursday showed that the battered economy may depress enthusiasm for him among Latinos.

The recession has hit Latinos disproportionately harder than other populations, with the unemployment rate among the group at 11 percent compared to nine percent in the nation overall. According to pollster Joshua Ulibarri, that has many Latinos saying it is getting harder to "reach the American Dream" of upward mobility.

"Latino voters may not be the ace in the hole that Democrats need them to be next November if things stay the same, and it is clear that Democrats will have to work hard to bring them into their corner," wrote Ulibarri, who oversaw a Lake Research Partners survey that showed 33 percent of Latino voters rating Obama's job performance as fair, and 22 percent giving him a poor rating, compared to 25 percent who said he is doing well and 18 percent who said he is doing an excellent job in office.

"Obama's current numbers among Latinos are not what they need to be if they are to be a base vote protecting against a surging Republican vote among working class and senior white voters," Ulibarri wrote.

A Gallup poll in September showed Hispanic support for Obama down to 48 percent from 60 percent when he was elected.

Nonetheless, said Ulibarri, "Democrats are in a much stronger position with Latino voters than Republicans."

Some Republicans know that they have to change this dynamic, or at least blunt the impact of Obama's advantage. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), the former president's younger brother, is co-hosting a January summit for Hispanic conservatives in Miami with former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, the second meeting of its kind in the last year.

And Ed Gillespie, former White House adviser to President Bush and a former Republican National Committee chairman, has pledged to recruit at least 100 Latino candidates to run for seats in state legislatures around the country in 2012.

Gillespie told HuffPost earlier this year that Republicans have often "sounded anti-immigrant" because of their vehement rhetoric against undocumented immigration and opposition from some on the right to any form of immigration reform that seeks a pathway to citizenship for those in the country without documentation, no matter how onerous the requirements.

But a senior Obama campaign official dismissed Gillespie's efforts as having little impact.

"I don't think all of the nice words will do anything compared to the record of complete opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, complete opposition to the Dream Act," the campaign official said. "I think his efforts are clearly not working if you believe the Univision poll."

"There was a straight-up vote on the Dream Act. Every single Republican opposed it in the Senate. They can't -- Gillespie can't fix that," the official said.

That's not actually correct. Most of the 47 Republican Senators in office voted against the bill giving undocumented immigrants a green card in exchange for two years of military service or university enrollment, but three Republicans -- Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah), Richard Lugar (Ind.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) -- voted for it, and four other Republicans were not present for the vote.

Obama has made only symbolic gestures toward immigration reform. The issue got lost in the fight over health care in 2009 and 2010, and Obama's subsequent shift to try to revive the economy.

Heading into the Republican presidential primary, hot rhetoric on the right aimed at immigration had subsided a great deal from past years. Combined with Obama's failure to make a serious effort to push immigration reform, it looked like a somewhat positive climate in which Republicans could appeal to Latinos for their vote.

But then Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) entered the race, and took a firm stand in defense of the Lone Star state's decision to give children of undocumented immigrants the same in-state tuition rate as children of full citizens. Perry said in a debate that those who didn't agree with him "don't have a heart."

Perry's rivals, including frontrunner Mitt Romney, have stepped over one another to condemn Perry's stance and proclaim themselves strong opponents of undocumented immigration. The attacks have prompted Perry to talk about his commitment to securing the border and cracking down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants.

In an interview with Latino reporters at the White House last week, Obama said the Republican debates have given his campaign all the material they need to convince Latino voters that they should support him.

"We may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim," Obama said, according to a Univision report. "We won't even comment on them, we'll just run those in a loop on Univision and Telemundo, and people can make up their own minds."