Last weekend in Tennessee, Herman Cain boasted that as President, he’d build a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border “20-feet high, with barbed wire, and electrified.” The crowd applauded, and in an interview a day later, Cain shrugged the whole thing off as “a joke.” He might come to regret being so cavalier about immigration, which ranks chief among Latino voters’ policy concerns.
The race for Latino support in 2012 is wide open. According to a new poll conducted by the nonpartisan research outfit Latino Decisions, barely half of Latinos say they are “certain” to vote for President Obama, who captured more than two-thirds of Latinos’ votes in 2008. Meanwhile, nearly one-quarter of Latinos have never heard of the two GOP front-runners, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. These data suggest there’s plenty of opportunities for Republican candidates to make inroads with Latinos in the coming months. But the political winds of primary season will make that difficult.
Taking a hard line on immigration is popular with large swaths of the Republican base, and it may be a powerful tool in conservative early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina. Michele Bachmann recently became the first presidential candidate to sign Americans for Securing the Border’s pledge to build a “double fence” along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border — an idea many Latinos vigorously oppose. That pledge won her effusive praise from Van D. Hipp Jr., chair of the North Carolina-based group and a former head of South Carolina’s Republican Party: “You are not just talking the talk, you are walking the walk.”
The candidate who has perhaps the best chance at winning over Latinos is Perry, the governor of Texas, which is home to the country’s second-largest Latino population after California. Perry’s highly nuanced views on immigration reflect his diverse state, and, to some degree, the more moderate Republican mainstream. Unlike his rivals, Perry believes that building a border fence is impractical — “nonsense,” he’s called it — and would prefer to dispatch troops to the border. As governor, Perry supported granting undocumented immigrants access to Texas’ public colleges. On the campaign trail, Perry has at times defended this position with a compassionate appeal that could resonate with Latinos. “If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they’ve been brought here through no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” he said at one debate. But the comment drew the ire of conservative immigration hawks, and rivals Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. The incentives in early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina push every candidate rightward—and that might explain in part why earlier this year, Perry backed an Arizona-style immigration bill barreling through Texas’ legislature, reversing his prior opposition to such a measure and shocking some Republican allies.
There’s one bright spot for Republicans: The party now boasts a handful of emerging Latino leaders like Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and Florida’s junior Senator Marco Rubio, who is widely viewed as a leading vice-presidential contender regardless of who ultimately heads the ticket. But relying on a few high-profile figures is a tricky proposition. Leading Republican candidates are missing a grand opportunity by declining to participate in Univision’s presidential primary debate, which is scheduled for January, days before the primary in Florida, where Latinos — mostly conservative-leaning Cuban-Americans — account for nearly 18% of the electorate. Florida Republicans called for a boycott of Univision’s decision over a dispute involving a story about a Rubio relative. In South Florida, Univision commands a larger audience than NBC and Fox affiliates – combined . (Univision’s competitor, Telemundo, meanwhile, has announced its own debate for December, in Las Vegas. But so far, none of the candidates have agreed to participate.)
Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions thinks both Democrats and Republicans are squandering an opportunity. “You could see a large, disaffected Latino electorate, if both parties don’t change,” he says. But the GOP’s heated primary presents the most immediate risk. “We’re watching who demonizes us,” says Dee Dee Blasé Garcia of Somos Republicans, a nearly 6,000-member group based in the Southwest. “And we won’t forget.”