Predicting the Latino Vote in 2012

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Mary Altaffer / AP

Lucy Allain, originally from Lima, Peru, and a student at Queens Borough Community College, addresses other activists March 14, 2012 in New York. Students protested in Manhattan against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's opposition to the Dream Act, a proposal that would create a path for undocumented children to legalize their immigration status.

The Latino vote will matter in the 2012 election. So say Republicans and Democrats, and even the cover of TIME magazine. But just how much it will matter is not clear at this point. Too many factors remain fluid. We don’t know how close races in key states will be, what the Latino and non-Latino turnout will be, or how the vote will split between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

But we can make some pretty good back-of-the-envelope guestimations, which is exactly what the political consultants inside the Obama and Romney camps have been doing.

On Monday, I participated in an Aspen Institute panel about the Latino vote in 2012, which was broadcast on C-Span, and I tried to boil down the impact of Latinos to a few simple numbers.

(PHOTOS: Election 2012: Faces of the Latino Vote)

In national elections since the early 1990s, Republicans have had a floor of about 20% among Latinos, a group that includes a large population of Cuban Americans in Florida. Democrats have always won at least 55%. So about 25% of the Latino vote is at play in the middle. (In one survey, Romney now polls at 14% among Latinos, though that poll, for the moment, is an outlier.)

So when we consider the impact of Latinos in 2012, we are looking at a swing between about a 20% vote share for Republicans and a 45% vote share. The question that follows is how much of an impact this swing will have on the final electoral college results. The polls that really matter are state-by-state surveys, not national ones.

Latinos are expected to make up about one in ten voters this year, but many of those votes, in big states like Texas, California and New York, will have no impact on the electoral college, since those states are not in play for Romney. But Latinos can have a big impact on the outcomes in Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and Florida, and a marginal impact in states like North Carolina and Ohio, all of which both parties will contest.

The polling firm Latino Decisions, which is the gold standard of Latino-American polling, recently put out a report on the impact of Latinos in these states. They found that for every eight points that Republicans lose among Latinos in states like Colorado and Nevada, the party needs to pick up another single point among non-Latino voters in order to not lose ground statewide.

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For example, if Obama gets 69% of the Latino vote in Nevada (ceding to Romney just 31%), then Obama can still win the state by capturing only 47% of the non-Latino vote (ceding to Romney 53%). If Obama gets a little more than 63% of the Latino vote, then he needs to get 48% of the non-Latino vote. Here is the chart:

There are many caveats to this formula, but it provides a helpful outline of the landscape. The difference between Democrats winning 80% of Latinos and winning 45% of Latinos in a state like Nevada corresponds to about three points in the non-Latino vote. In other words, we are talking about a field goal, not a touchdown. But in states like Nevada and Colorado, which have a history of hosting close presidential contests, that may be enough.

(MORE: Why Latino Voters Will Swing the 2012 Election)

These numbers also help explain the different approaches that the Romney and Obama campaigns have taken to the election. With its vast network of staffers and year-long grace period to prepare, the Obama campaign is pursuing a strategy that focuses on deploying specialized teams, which are reaching out to  constituent groups, building an enormous ground game and making a huge investment in technology, from iPhone apps (which don’t always work) to new data gathering programs. For the most part, these factors will only impact the outcome if the final score is close enough to be decided by a field goal. Romney, who has fewer resources after a bruising primary, is building a campaign in the expectation that the 2012 will be yet another anti-incumbent wave cycle that will hinge upon the economy. In other words, it will be won with touchdowns, not field goals.

As the Romney campaign rejiggers for the general election, there will be a pivot, at least in tone, to appeal to Latino voters. The tough talk–advocating “self-deportation” and calling Arizona a “model” for the nation–will almost surely give way to more positive talk about the need for fair reforms to immigration law. And Romney is not going to completely cede the ground game or the technological arms race to Obama. But the underlying difference outlook is almost sure to remain up until Election Day. One team will be counting on its kicker, the other is betting it won’t need one.

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