With his victory in the Florida Republican presidential primary bolstered by 54% of the Latino vote, Mitt Romney is said to have won the first battle in the contest for Hispanic support. While Florida is now getting smaller in the rear view mirror, it warrants further examination.
To gain the support of Latinos at the national level, Romney and the rest of the contenders for the Republican nomination must drastically change their hard line immigration rhetoric and address bilateral ties to Latin America that extend beyond commerce. Florida gave us a glimpse into why that doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon.
Two weeks ago, both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney interviewed with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, and began to address the Hispanic community. While the interview provided some variety, with Ramos asking Romney what he meant when he said, “God had created the United States to lead the world,” and inquiring into Gingrich’s liberal marital practices, by the time both candidates spoke at the Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Miami, their remarks were hitting all the same notes.
On foreign policy both candidates disparaged the Castro regime, reiterated their opposition to Chavez, urged for increases of trade with Latin America and acknowledged the problem of drug cartels.
But, it would have been refreshing to hear the candidates speak about the foreign policy dimension of immigration, the consequences of free trade agreements on Latin American agriculture and manufacture, the impact of the U.S. economic recession throughout the region, or the decline in Mexican immigration due to economic growth in Mexico vis-à-vis the United States.
Instead they engaged the subject as the GOP always has: as though immigrants materialize into existence only as they are about to, or succeed in crossing the U.S. border.
Using their personal twist, they each advocated for their own versions of non-comprehensive immigration reform … which, you know, includes various border walls and fences, a “reformed” visa system. When Ramos confronted each candidate with the merits of the DREAM Act, both opposed it (or in the case of Gingrich, half opposed it).
Given these similarities, why did Romney win such overwhelming support from Floridian Latinos? Several factors might have contributed to his victory. Perhaps it was slight differences in rhetoric that gave Romney an advantage. While Romney explicitly supported Puerto Rican statehood, Gingrich committed his support to the result of a referendum vote in Puerto Rico. This lack of clear resolve at the Hispanic Leadership Network conference even incited a woman in the audience to directly ask whether Gingrich supported statehood. He reiterated he would rather delegate the decision to the people of Puerto Rico and support whichever they decided.
For a political party that has praised action over reflection, and has chastised President Obama for being overly intellectual, perhaps the thought of Gingrich giving a matter careful consideration, rather than upholding an infallible opinion, was unsettling.
The candidates’ immigration reform ideas also differed. Gingrich, perhaps seeking to cater to a traditional Latino interest, supported a “more humane” immigration enforcement approach that would grant a resident authorization to undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for over 25 years and can count on a sponsoring native family, among other requirements.
However, rather than a long held conviction, Gingrich seems to have developed this idea simply as a talking point to counteract Romney’s self-deportation scheme, which would make it impossible for undocumented immigrants to work through a stringent E-Verify program, forcing them to return home from their own accord. When Ramos pressed Gingrich on the issue, noting that 25 years or residency would leave out most undocumented Latinos, the former Speaker was unable to fully develop his idea. So, perhaps Florida Latinos perceived some nuanced superiority in Romney’s remarks.
Other theories abound. Some have claimed Romney’s business background appealed to entrepreneurial-minded Latinos, others pointed to prominent Latino leaders backing Romney. However, such attempts at clairvoyance are irrelevant. While it would be interesting to identify what allowed Romney to win in Florida, knowing such a factor would be of little value to either candidate. Florida Latinos are remarkably different from the rest of the U.S. Latino population. According the Pew Hispanic Center, about 30% of Florida’s registered Hispanic voters are Republican and roughly 38% identify as Democrats. At the national level however, the party affiliation distribution is more unequal. Since 2006, Democrats have increased their approval amongst Latinos, resulting in a 2008 Presidential election where 65% of Latino voters identified as Democrats, and only 26% were Republican.
Unless Romney and his rivals intend no content themselves with the 26% of the (Republican) Latino vote, they must change their rhetoric. The hard line immigration stances might have been less relevant in Florida, where 28% of Latinos are Puerto Rican and 32% are Cuban.
However, immigration reform will be of greater salience at the national level, where the Latino population is 59% of Mexican origin. While Romney and Gingrich can discuss the finesses of systematic deportation in Florida without much consequence, they might have to change their discourse when addressing the largest growing immigrant population, the automatic citizenship status of Puerto Ricans, and the naturalization advantages offered to Cubans seeking political asylum. While the last thing Romney needs is to change his opinion on yet another issue, he will have to move away from the clichés and discuss more substance. If he wants to become president, that is.