Will Latinos decide America’s elections?

WASHINGTON,  (Reuters) – Every day, around 1,600 U.S. citizens of Latin American extraction are reaching 18 years of age – voting age – and adding to the fastest-growing segment of the American electorate.

Almost 22 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in November’s elections and how many of them turn out may well decide who will be the next U.S. president.

A series of recent polls show that Latinos favor President Obama over any of the Republican presidential hopefuls, with a comfortable 70 percent to 14 percent over Mitt Romney, the man most likely to win the Republican nomination at the end of a primary campaign marked by often shrill anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Obama is so confident that the primary debates have driven Latinos away from the Republican party that he told the Spanish-language television network Univision last November there was no need for his campaign to run negative ads on the Republican presidential hopefuls. Instead, “we may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim. We won’t even comment on themand people can make up their own minds.”

Among debate highlights that stick in the collective memory was the electrified Mexican-U.S. border fence suggested by Herman Cain, who soon after dropped out of the race, and Mitt Romney’s idea that illegal immigrants would chose “self-deportation” because they can’t find work here, because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here.” Newt Gingrich, who is still in the primary contest but whose star is fading, described self-deportation as a fantasy.

The president’s confidence of winning Latino support again – he took 67 percent of their vote in 2008 — is partly based on history: Republicans have lost the Latino vote in every presidential election since 1972.

But it would be a mistake for Obama to take that support for granted, not least because he broke an election campaign promise to produce a bill on immigration reform in his first year in office.

This prompted Jorge Ramos, the influential Univision anchor to whom he made the promise in 2008, to write in an essay in Time magazine last month saying that Latinos faced the difficult choice on November 6 “of voting for either a president who broke a major promise or a Republican candidate who doesn’t respect us.”

If enough Latinos find that choice so difficult that they will sit out the vote, Obama’s confidence may prove mistaken. To hear electoral number crunchers tell it, an Obama victory could hinge on Latin turnout and support in swing states where no candidate can be certain of getting the most votes. These states include Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

POPULAR VOTE DOESN’T EQUAL VICTORY

Ruy Texeira, an election expert and demographer at the liberal Center For American Progress Action Fund, points out that while the Latino support tracked by opinion polls points to Obama winning the popular vote, that doesn’t always translate into electoral victory. The presidential elections of 2000, decided after a bitter controversy over Florida’s 25 Electoral College votes, are a case in point.

While immigration, for decades a hot-button issue in the United States, has dominated the debate, it does not top the list of Latino concerns. Surveys show that like other Americans, Latinos care most about jobs, the economy, education and health care. Immigration ranks fifth.

Latino voters don’t have direct immigration problems – they are citizens. But, as Jorge Ramos says in his essay, “the issues concerning undocumented immigrants are very, very personal. If you attack them, you attack all of us. They are our neighbors and co-workers; their kids go to school with our kids; they serve in battle next to our sons; they take the jobs no one else wants; they pay taxes and overwhelmingly make America a better country.”

Those who attack illegal immigrants are not restricted to Republican presidential hopefuls. Since Obama took office, his administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president in history – an average of around 400,000 a year. The deportations have resulted in the separation of thousands of parents from children who were born in the U.S. and thus are citizens.

In a campaign twist that carries a whiff of desperation, Romney has begun to try and turn Obama’s record on immigration against him. “He campaigned saying he was going to reform immigration laws and simplify and protect the border,” the Republican front-runner said early in April, “and then he had two years with a Democrat House and a Democrat Senate and a super majority in each house, and he did nothing.”

“So let the immigrant community not forget that while he uses this as a political weapon, he does not take responsibility for fixing the problems we have.”

This comes from a candidate whose party stalled attempts at immigration reform both under George W. Bush and Obama. Whether his argument sways enough Latinos to make a difference in November remains to be seen.

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