09/20/2012 06:07 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

Romney's Rising Latino Support: Is the Conventional Wisdom Wrong?

It's been a prominent storyline in the mainstream media for months: Mitt Romney is failing so badly with Latino voters that it could cost him the election in November.

But is it actually true?

Not if the latest national polls are to be believed. Two recent surveys, one by Latino Decisions, the other by Fox News, place Romney at 30 percent of the Latino vote. That's just 1 percent off the 31 percent that John McCain received in 2008. And with 10 percent of Latino voters still undecided in both polls, Romney may well reach 35 percent, if he splits the remaining votes with the president.

How good is that? 35 percent would be just shy of the 37 percent that Ronald Reagan won in 1984, which was the GOP record before George W. Bush broke through to 40-44 percent in 2004. It would suggest the makings of a GOP "comeback" of sorts with the nation's 50 million Latinos, who surpassed African-Americans as the nation's largest ethnic group in 2001, and whose political clout is growing with each new election cycle.

Obama meanwhile, remains stuck at 60 percent in the latest polls. That's 7 percent less than he received in 2008. Yes, he still leads 2-1, but the gap, which was once 70-14, is shrinking, and has been for some time. In fact, Romney received a 5 percent bounce with Latinos as a result of the GOP convention in Tampa. His net favorability rating increased also. And significantly, both increases survived the Democrats' own national convention, in which Latino speakers also figured prominently.

Of course, the real impact of the Latino vote isn't felt so much nationally (except symbolically) as it is in key Latino-rich battleground states. The three most important are Florida, Nevada and Colorado, with 43 electoral votes between them. With sizable Latino populations, relatively small Latino voter swings can potentially tip the outcome. In 2008, Obama won all three -- Nevada and Colorado handily -- but this year, the GOP's closed the gap considerably,

Part of the problem for Obama -- largely unreported in the media -- is that he's actually under-performing with Latinos in all three states. Consider the latest polling data on Obama's current share of the Latino vote compared to 2008.

2008: 57%
2012: 54%
Net: -3

2008: 61%
2012: 57%
Net -4

2008: 78%
2012: 67%
Net -11

Arguably, not all of these differences are sizable, even if the trend line is clear. But keep in mind: the Latino vote doesn't exist in isolation. Obama doesn't just need to retain his 2008 Latino share in these three states. He also needs to command a healthy share of white voters.

However, look at what's happening to the White vote in these same three states.

2008: 42%
2012: 40%
Net: -2

2008: 50%
2012: 41%
Net -9

2008: 45%
2012: 40%
Net -5

Now take Obama's combined net-loss for whites and Latinos and compare that figure to Obama's margin of victory in all three states in 2008.

Total Net Loss: -5
Obama 2008 margin: 3%

Total Net Loss: -13
Obama 2008 margin: 9%

Total Net Loss: -16
Obama 2008 margin: 13%

As indicated the combined shift in voting support exceeds Obama's 2008 margin of victory in all three states. If Obama could improve his standing with either whites or Latinos, even marginally, he will likely win all three states. But right now the trend line, especially with Latinos, is moving in the opposite direction.

Why is Romney gaining? Two reasons, most analysts agree. First, Romney has softened his anti-illegal immigration rhetoric and raised the visibility of his support for legal as opposed to illegal immigration. He's still opposed to the original DREAM Act, as well as a general "amnesty," but is prepared to make exceptions for those willing to join the armed forces. The GOP platform also commits the party to a guest worker program, which would open up new legal channels for illegal immigrants to work without fear of deportation. It's far less than Obama is promising, of course but Obama hasn't followed through on comprehensive immigration reform, which Romney keeps harping on, if only to try to narrow the distance between himself and the president, and to exploit the deep disappointment that many Latinos still feel with the president, too.

That disappointment may actually grow in the coming weeks, as news spreads that Obama has decided not to extend the benefits of Obamacare to the illegal immigrants that he's spared from deportation with his executive order last June. First reported by the New York Times, the move reflects Obama's decision to try to walk a tightrope between his Latino base and more conservative white swing voters who oppose illegal immigration as well as Obamacare. This is the second time, in fact, that Obama has excluded some Latinos from Obamacare. The first came in 2010, when he agreed to tighten provisions so that illegal immigrants couldn't qualify, even for the private insurance exchanges. The latest news could well open up an old wound, and might further dampen Latino enthusiasm for Obama.

The second factor, of course, is simply the state of the economy, and the huge toll it's taking on Latinos. Nevada, for example, where Obama appears to have slipped the most, has had the nation's highest foreclosure rate as well as high unemployment, both of which disproportionately hurt Latinos. What Romney has done, more effectively than many observers seem to realize, is partially neutralize the immigration issue to allow Latino voters to become more receptive to his arguments on the economy, and to Romney, personally, as someone they can trust. He hasn't moved the needle phenomenally, but he's moved it steadily, and that could prove to be enough, at least in these three states.

And that's not all. There are real concerns about just how many Latinos will show up to vote in November. Part of the problem is dampened enthusiasm, but there's also been a sharp -- but largely unreported -- decline in the number of registered Latino voters since 2010. And with a relatively high expected White voter turn-out, it's possible that the Latino share of the 2012 electorate will be the same or even smaller than it was in 2008. Instead of growing to 9 or 10 percent, it may well fall to its 2004 level of 8 percent, a huge embarrassment for those seeking to promote Latino voter participation, and another boon to Romney's chances of winning just enough Latino votes to carry the swing states.

In short, most contemporary analysts seem to have the 2012 Latino vote completely wrong. They're focused on Obama's continuing advantage over Romney, which is real, but they're ignoring how the GOP candidate's narrowing of that gap and his relative advantage with white voters are affecting the states that are most in play. Romney's not going to win large numbers of Latino voters away from Obama. But if current trends hold, he may not need to. With a strong lock on White voters, a mere 35 percent of the Latino vote amid a diminished Latino "presence" overall may well suffice.