10/09/2012 06:27 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Does Romney Have an Opening with Latino Voters on Education Reform?

You've already heard the verdict: Romney is getting creamed by Obama with Latino voters. As I wrote two weeks ago, the evidence, especially from the swing states, is actually more mixed. Not only is Obama stll struggling to match his 2008 performance with Latinos in states like Florida and Colorado, but he's under-performing with white voters, too. That's a real problem for Democrats because Latinos don't influence elections in isolation. Obama also needs support from white voters on par with the level he achieved in 2008; otherwise, the relative impact of the Latino vote could be nullified.

But there's another danger. A spate of polls suggests that Romney's message on school choice -- supporting direct funding to parents through school vouchers, for example -- has the potential to resonate with Latinos. That was true in past elections, Latina Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez told me in a recent interview, but it appears even truer now. Last April, a Latino education group, CREO, conducted a poll in which a majority of Latino voters expressed strong support for school choice. According to the poll, which focused on Florida and Latino-rich states like Nevada and Arizona, 53 percent of respondents said prioritizing education reform was essential for improving the economy for Latinos, compared to 44 percent who said focusing on the economy alone should be the goal.

Now, a more recent poll by Latino Decisions/impreMedia finds that Latino voters, even those strongly leaning toward Obama, are still open to messaging on school choice, even as they continue to express disappointment with the Republicans and Mitt Romney on issues like immigration and health care. According to the poll, 42 percent said they opposed school vouchers, but 38 percent said they supported them, with a large percentage still undecided or unclear. "Romney's stand on education could help him gain some traction with the Latino vote", Monica Lozano of impreMedia said in a release that accompanied the poll. "Providing more school choice through such things as vouchers might provide Romney the opportunity to change his low favorability with Latino voters."

The issue of school choice came up during last week's presidential debate, with Romney urging greater support for vouchers, and Obama, visibly uncomfortable, doing his best to avoid answering directly, while reiterating his support for federal funding for teachers and schools. It is well known that leading Latino Democratic political figures, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a top Obama surrogate who recently chaired the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, supports school vouchers, making the issue eminently exploitable by Republicans. In 2010, Villaraigosa, a one-time member of a teacher's union, even blasted his state's teachers unions for failing to "join the education reform team."

It turns out that Romney's views on school choice go far beyond the issue of vouchers and indeed, some have argued that they might well place him to the left of Obama. In a little-noticed speech he gave last May, Romney called for lifting long-standing restrictions on the ability of low-income, inner city kids to attend public schools in the suburbs. Democrats and Republicans alike have long hewed to the idea that existing school district boundaries are sacrosanct and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that view in 1974. Ever since, education reform plans, including the recent "No Child left Behind" policy, have reaffirmed those boundaries, leaving talented inner-city youth no way to escape the urban school system unless their families could afford to move.

But Romney's proposal, fleshed out in a subsequent white paper, would require states to "adopt open-enrollment policies that permit eligible students to attend public schools outside of their school district." In theory, it's a radical break with orthodoxy and yet how radical would depend on just how the approach is implemented. Would school systems actually provide the families of poor but talented youth with transportation subsidies? Could suburban schools refuse inner-city kids access, and under what conditions? These are not the kind of ideas about social mobility that the GOP base, many of them comfortable white suburbanites, are likely to take to, but presented properly -- in the context of fostering educational "excellence," perhaps -- they might prove useful to Romney as he winds down his campaign and pivots to the center and tries to position himself as the "candidate of new ideas."

But will Romney decide to seize the opportunity? Those Republicans like Sanchez who have watched Romney proceed far too cautiously on immigration reform, perhaps, have their doubts. And with less than a month to go before the election, time is clearly running out. But the potential to reach Latino voters -- whose skepticism of Romney is undeniable -- with a more visible GOP education agenda -- and targeted Spanish-language campaign ads highlighting Obama's opposition to school choice -- appears to be real. With Romney surging, and some of Obama's "softer" white support beginning to swing his way, the time to act is now.