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Are Latino voters a missed 2012 opportunity for Republicans?

With the Republican contenders meeting in Mesa, Ariz., Wednesday night for their final debate before Tuesday’s primaries in that state and in Michigan, the issue of illegal immigration will likely get another turn in the spotlight and the GOP will get another reminder of the general election difficulties it faces with Hispanic voters.

None of the four remaining GOP contenders has voiced support for a broad amnesty that would allow younger illegal immigrants to become permanent legal residents.

NBC-Marist Michigan poll
NBC-Marist Arizona poll

Of the four, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has the most accommodating policy toward illegal immigration, calling for local citizen review boards to allow some long-term illegal residents to remain in the United States.

While immigration hasn’t been a dominant issue in this GOP presidential contest, it has a deep impact in Arizona where Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, signed SB 1070, a crackdown on illegal immigrants in 2010. Brewer has not yet endorsed a Republican presidential contender.

President Barack Obama’s Justice Department is trying to overturn that Arizona law and the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in that case on April 25.

The GOP contenders are unlikely to directly criticize the Arizona law in Wednesday's debate on Brewer’s home turf. More than two-thirds of likely Republican primary voters in Arizona said they’d be more inclined to vote for a presidential candidate who backs SB 1070, according to the NBC News/Marist Poll released Wednesday.

The GOP contenders walk a fine line: hard-hitting rhetoric on immigration is popular with conservative primary voters, but may be costly in the fall because Latinos seem likely to account for a bigger share of the general electorate in battleground states like Colorado and Nevada than they did four years ago.

A new NBC News poll shows that GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are neck-and-neck in Michigan, but Romney has a comfortable lead in Arizona. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

With Brewer now one face of the party on the issue, the GOP has come a long way from 2004 when President George W. Bush -- who said “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande” -- won an estimated 43 percent of Latino voters. Republican candidate John McCain won an estimated 31 percent of Latino voters in 2008.

In the 2008 election, Arizona went for its own senator, McCain. This year, its 11 electoral votes are an alluring target for Obama’s strategists. But the Democrats’ “chances of it flipping are pretty minimal” this year due to the conservatism of white voters there, said Ruy Teixeira, a political demographer and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-allied think tank.

In the NBC News/Marist Poll of Arizona voters, in a hypothetical contest between Obama and Mitt Romney, 45 percent said they’d support Romney and 40 percent said they’d back Obama.

But overall in the general election, “The Latino vote is going to be absolutely crucial in 2012,” Teixeira said at a recent conference on Latino voters at American University in Washington. 

In Nevada, for example, Teixeira projects a four percentage-point increase in the minority share of the vote and a five-point decline in white working-class voters’ share of the vote.

The NOW panel expects immigration to be a hot-button issue during Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate in Arizona, but will the issue rise to the forefront of national attention?

If Obama can win 80 percent of minority voters nationally, “he could get shellacked” among white voters “as badly as Democratic congressional candidates were in 2010, when they lost the white working class by 30 points” and yet “he could almost survive that level of shellacking,” Teixeira argued.

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Even in Pennsylvania, where Latinos were only four percent of the 2008 electorate, they may end up being crucial, Teixeira said.

He predicted that Obama will lose among Pennsylvania’s white working-class voters, but “all he has to do is not get totally wiped out. He can afford a 15-point loss, he can afford a 20-point loss, what he doesn’t want is 30-point loss” among white working-class voters.

“If he can get the Latino vote mobilized and motivated to vote for him at a high level, I think it very much reinforces his chances of taking the state,” he said.

Polling of registered Latino voters for Univision last month suggested that GOP opposition to the DREAM Act will make it impossible for most Latinos to vote Republican in November. In the Univision poll, 85 percent of Latino voters supported the DREAM Act.

Passed by the House, but rejected by the Senate in 2010, the DREAM Act would allow non-citizens under age 30 who entered the United States illegally before their 16th birthday to remain as legal U.S. residents, as long as they’d committed no serious crimes, earned a high school diploma, or served in the military.

Even though more than 60 percent of Latinos are U.S. born, and thus American citizens, most Latino registered voters also say they know someone -- sometimes a family member -- who is an illegal immigrant. That personal connection is one reason why the DREAM Act has become a litmus test.

All but three GOP senators voted against allowing a vote on the DREAM Act in 2010; all but five Democratic senators voted for it.

Obama’s support for the DREAM Act may be an electoral liability in states such as North Carolina -- Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and three of the state’s Democratic House members voted against it in 2010 -- and in Indiana: Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Joe Donnelly voted against it. Obama carried both North Carolina and Indiana in 2008.

But elsewhere Obama’s support for the bill seems likely to help him win Latino votes.

“A lot of Latinos are very upset about Obama’s deportation policies” -- there were a record number of deportations in 2010 -- “there’s a disappointment there,” Teixeira said, but he contends that what he calls the “anti-immigrant tenor” of the Republican Party “is pushing Latinos into the arms of the Democratic Party.”

Stanford University political scientist Gary Segura said that the GOP “has missed a strategic opportunity” to win over Latinos. Obama, he said, “is assuming he has support (among Latinos) that he may not have, but he might ultimately get away with it anyway ... because of Republican messaging on the (immigration) issue.”

Republican National Committee spokeswoman Alexandra Franceschi disputed the idea that immigration will dominate Latino voters’ decisions in November.

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Polls, she said, “show that the number one issue that Hispanics across the country are considering when they’re going to make an electoral decision is jobs and the economy. I think the immigration issue kind of gets blown out of proportion ... .”

She noted that unemployment rate among Latinos is two points higher than the national average “and they’re really frustrated by President Obama’s failed economic policies.”

The RNC launched a Latino outreach program last month, hiring Bettina Inclan, a former strategist for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, to direct that effort which will put RNC field workers in Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada to mobilize Latino Republicans.

The tension over immigration in the GOP has been between Gingrich and Romney.

In a debate last December, Gingrich referred to “someone who's been here 25 years, somebody who has been a good local citizen, may well belong to your church, has children and grandchildren in the United States,” and argued that “I do not believe the people of the United States are going to send the police in to rip that kind of person out and ship them out of this country ... .”

But he also said that most illegal workers in the United States “should go home immediately” and “we should make deportation dramatically easier.”

Gingrich in one ad branded Romney as “the most anti-immigrant candidate,” and despite taking down that ad, stood by that label when asked about it in a debate last month.

Romney has said, “I am pro-immigrant. I want people to come to America with skill and vitality and vibrancy. I want them to come legally.”

He has also said, “I'm not going around and rounding people up and deporting them.” He proposes that legal immigrants receive a work permit. “People who do not come here legally do not get a work permit. Those who don't get work will tend, over time, to self-deport,” he said.

Romney said last month that he’d veto the DREAM Act, but he supports a version of it that would open a path to citizenship to those who serve in the U.S. military.

Despite the general Latino support for the DREAM Act, Romney did win 54 percent of Latino voters in Florida’s Jan. 31 Republican primary.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum voted against the 2006 comprehensive immigration reform bill which included a version of the DREAM Act.

He supports legal immigration, in order to boost population growth -- “We are not replacing ourselves,” he warned last month -- and because “immigrants bring a vitality and a love of this country that infuses this country with great energy.”

But he said, “people who have come to this country illegally have broken the law repeatedly” by working here and must be deported.

The maverick GOP contender, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who voted against the Dream Act in 2010, said in a debate last month, “We spend way too much time worrying about the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Use some of those resources on our own border.”

But Paul also seemed to imply he’d tolerate some illegal immigration in a boom economy: “The weaker the economy, the more resentment there is when illegals come in. If you have a healthy, vibrant economy, it's not a problem; we're usually looking for workers.”