Obama Steps Up Campaign To Win Over Latino Voters

Jul 25, 2011

Virtually any time President Obama has opened his mouth in public this month, it has been to talk about the debt ceiling. On Monday, he shifts his focus — at least for an hour — to address the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic advocacy group in the country.

It's the latest effort in the president's intense campaign to win the hearts and minds of Latinos. In the White House, he has met with Hispanic celebrities, activists and policy groups for summits, lunches and parties.

Last month, Obama became the first sitting president since John F. Kennedy to make an official visit to Puerto Rico.

The month before that, the president delivered what was billed as a major immigration speech on the U.S.-Mexico border. The policy proposals were not dramatically new, but this attack on Republicans for blocking comprehensive immigration reform was:

"You know, they said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Now they're going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol, or they'll want a higher fence. Maybe they'll need a moat — maybe they want alligators in the moat."

But some Latinos still don't feel that Obama has done enough. "It was at our annual conference at [the National Council of La Raza] when he was a candidate that he did make a promise that comprehensive immigration reform would be an absolute top priority," says Janet Murguia, La Raza's president and CEO. "And I think it's been disappointing for many of us in the Latino community."

When President Obama speaks to women's groups, or gay and lesbian audiences, he can point to a list of things his administration has accomplished for those communities. He can tell Latino groups that he appointed the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.

But beyond that, there's a long list of unfinished business. Republicans see an opportunity to make inroads into the fastest-growing minority group in the country.

The conservative group Crossroads GPS spent more than $150,000 on a Spanish-language TV ad that shows a woman lying awake at night, worried about the economy — which, it turns out, is a top concern for Hispanic voters as well.

"In many respects, Hispanics have been hit harder in the job market than some other groups during this recession," says Mark Hugo Lopez, of the Pew Hispanic Center.

"There are now Hispanics in virtually every part of the country ... some of the fastest growth in Hispanic populations occurred in the Southeast — places like Alabama or South Carolina." Or Georgia, which Lopez notes "saw its Hispanic population double during the last decade."

Those states traditionally vote Republican. Mario Lopez of the Hispanic Leadership Fund fears they might not stay that way unless conservatives do some serious Latino outreach.

"Some of us who've been involved in the center-right movement for a long time, as I have, have been sounding that alarm for a really long time," he says. "And from time to time, people perk up and pretend like they're listening, and we certainly hope it's for real this time."

But Murguia does not see Republicans really trying to make inroads. She says she invited several Republican presidential candidates to speak at Monday's conference; none accepted.

"I feel like they're missing an incredible opportunity to engage and to court a growing segment of the electorate," she says, "and I'm hoping that we'll see an enlightened candidate make an effort."

Candidates may have an increasing incentive to do just that. Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution says the Hispanic population is younger than other groups in the U.S.

In 2008, only 42 percent of Hispanics were eligible to vote.

"That percentage is going to go up over time as more of these U.S.-born Hispanic kids become voters," he says. "We'll see some of it in 2012, but certainly by 2016, that young Hispanic vote will be crucial in ever bigger parts of the United States."

Republicans and Democrats both have high hopes for Latinos in the next election. Even as Republicans try to make inroads, the Obama re-election campaign says it hopes to win an even higher percentage of Latino voters than Obama did in his first presidential campaign.

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