WASHINGTON - The number of Latino voters will rise by 25 percent in the 2012 election, to 12.6 million, compared to 2008, and they'll hold the key votes in more states than ever before, a panel of experts on the Latino population predicts.
The panel included Jason Leon of Project New America, a former Western regional political operative for the AFL-CIO. Panelists, speaking at the Center for National Policy, added the Latino electorate, while not monolithic, is focused on three top issues: Jobs and the economy, education and immigration rights.
"Romney and the Republicans have turned off a lot of Latino voters on that" third issue, said David Ferreira of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. Latinos view anti-immigration views "not as just opposition to immigration, but as views about race," added Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "Four in ten (Latinos) felt personally targeted" recently, another panelist said.
The findings, from a 6,000-person survey of Latinos by Leon's group, are important because Hispanics are the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group. The 25 percent hike in numbers, the panel says, comes from a combination of legal immigration and citizenship and coming of age of youngsters born in the U.S.
Leon's survey showed Hispanic voter registration is 50 percent Democratic, 21 percent Republican and 26 percent independent, though the proportion of independents is higher among younger Hispanics. But opinion polls show Democratic President Barack Obama has a virtual 3-to-1 lead over GOP nominee Mitt Romney among Hispanics.
Unless Romney can get the percentage up to 35 percent-38 percent, Leon added, he faces a tough road to the White House. Romney's road would be particularly tough, the panel noted, because the Latino vote is branching out from its traditional centers in California, New Mexico, Illinois, New York and Florida. Leon noted, for example, that 2.5 percent of the electorate in both the key swing state of Ohio and in next-door Pennsylvania are Latino.
Most of those voters, especially in Ohio, are of Puerto Rican ancestry, he added, and are concerned about measures to aid "underwater" homeowners - Latinos were hit harder by foreclosures than other groups - and create jobs.
The Latinos also view government as having a positive role in job creation, and "in a bit of good news for my union colleagues, 86 percent back the right to organize and bargain collectively," Leon said. They view that as a pathway to decent jobs.
The panel also called the Republicans extremely shortsighted for not reconsidering their approach to and positions concerning the Latino community. They noted that former GOP President George W. Bush, who had a good working relationship with Latinos as Texas governor, pushed comprehensive immigration reform. He also got more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.
Bush's immigration reform plan, crafted with a bipartisan coalition that included the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., died in a GOP Senate filibuster. Latinos remember that, the panel said. "Bush had the right strategy, but Romney hasn't gotten the message," Wilkes said. Romney took a hard anti-immigrant line in GOP primaries.
But Democrats and Obama cannot take the Latino vote for granted, the panel advised. Some 35 percent of Latinos, a plurality, call themselves as socially conservative," with almost an equal share calling themselves moderates, Leon's survey says. And the top Hispanic newscaster in the U.S. has constantly criticized Obama for breaking his 2008 promise to push comprehensive immigration reform.
And at least one more GOP Latino, from Texas, will be in the U.S. Senate next year. A Democratic Latino has a 50-50 shot at an open GOP-held Senate seat from Arizona, the panel said.
The one problem on the horizon is voter suppression efforts, many of them aimed at Latinos, the panelists added. Their groups are being pro-active in already holding state officials' feet to the fire to ensure fairness at the polls. In the latest example, they sat down with Arizona's Secretary of State to demand correction of two state mailers, in Spanish, with the wrong date - Nov. 8 - for Election Day.
The mailers were distributed in Maricopa County (Phoenix).
Hispanic groups are also encouraging Latino voters to cast ballots wherever early voting is allowed. That will allow time for challenges to residency and voting status to be resolved before Nov. 6. "And the whole controversy over voter ID appears to have backfired" on its GOP backers, one panelist said. It raised the issue's visibility so much that more Latinos than ever rushed to register - and make sure they were.
Other evidence of the spreading influence of Latino voters includes:
Latinos are a growing bloc in Connecticut, which has an unexpectedly tight U.S. Senate race in a heavily Democratic state. Hartford, the state capital, is 40 Latino, Ferreira said.
There are more than 200 Latino state legislators nationwide, with other Latinos stepping up civic participation by seeking lower-level elected office.
Photo: Americas Voice online