Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney travelled to New Mexico this week in search of the state's 5 electoral votes, but he has a significant hurdle to overcome. The latest Rasmussen poll numbers in the state show Romney trailing the president by 14 percent.
Romney began his campaign in Hobbs, New Mexico, by talking about his energy plan. It's good politics to talk about energy in the West, where the energy business provides lots of job and economic growth. But Romney's problem in the state has little to do with energy and much to do with demographics.
Romney has, so far, largely ignored the elephant in the room: the large Hispanic population in the state. New Mexico boasts the largest proportion of Hispanics of any state. A large majority of New Mexican Hispanics are native-born U.S. citizens. Hispanics in NM have a long history of political involvement from the state's founding to the present and make up almost 40 percent of eligible voters. What's more, NM voters have elected several Republican Hispanics, including current Gov. Susanna Martinez.
While New Mexico's share of electoral votes is small, Romney will need all the votes he can to overcome Obama's big advantage in electorally rich states like California, New York, New Jersey and other safely Democratic havens. With 191 electoral votes from states likely or leaning his way, Romney needs 79 of the remaining swing state votes, while Obama needs only 49 because he is already likely or leaning to win in states with 221 votes. The math is much more difficult for Romney unless he can win all the states he now leads in plus Florida, Virginia, Ohio and at least one other large toss-up state like Michigan or Wisconsin, or a couple of smaller ones, like Colorado or Nevada.
Gov. Martinez is scheduled to speak at next week's Republican National Convention in Tampa in prime time. But that's not enough to assuage Hispanic voters in her home state -- or elsewhere. Like Hispanics in other politically important states like Florida (where 14.5 percent of eligible voters are Hispanics), New Mexicans aren't keen on Romney's handling of the immigration issue, one he's largely ignored once he secured a lock on the nomination. Nor are Hispanic voters in Colorado or Nevada, where they make up about 13 percent of all eligible voters.
The candidate seems to think he can remain silent on the issue, but he'd be smarter to come up with a positive approach that emphasizes legal immigration reform and a willingness to consider alternatives to "self-deportation" (his phrase during the primaries) for the country's 11 million illegal immigrants.
President Obama has provided Romney with some opportunity to make inroads on the Hispanic. Hispanic support for Obama is among the highest of any group (70 percent in recent polls), but that's in part due to the GOP's hesitance to aggressively exploit Obama's weaknesses in the Hispanic community.
Hispanic unemployment is at record levels over the last four years. The economic downturn -- especially in construction -- has eliminated jobs in which Hispanics workers found a niche and an opportunity to move up the economic ladder. Hispanic unemployment now exceeds 10 percent. Obama's dismal record in creating jobs has hit the Hispanic community hard. And the 2010 poverty level among Hispanics (28 percent) exceeded that of blacks, when the economic benefits of food stamps, subsidized housing and other non-cash benefits are included.
Romney has begun airing an ad (in Spanish) accusing the Democrats of "fooling" Hispanics on the economy. But the ad is pretty generic and does little to sow doubts about whether a second Obama term might stall the impressive gains Hispanics have made in upward mobility over the years. But the problem for Romney and the GOP in general is that they have not made it clear enough that they actually believe in Hispanic economic mobility and the assimilation of Hispanics into the American mainstream. Instead, they've spent too much time talking about the threat of illegal immigration and allying themselves with groups that oppose legal immigration as well. It's no wonder many Hispanics don't feel welcome.
It's not too late for Romney to fix the problem, but time is running out. He should begin this coming week in Florida by offering up not just a few Hispanic stars but real solutions on the immigration front. Sooner or later, he'll have to. He'd be better off doing it on friendly turf than waiting for the issue to emerge during the presidential debates.
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