Mitt Romney did well with Hispanic voters in the Florida primary. But that doesn't mean what he hopes it means.
The former Massachusetts governor's Hispanic support came from registered Republicans — most of them Cuban-Americans or Puerto Ricans, who have less concern about immigration than most Hispanic voters. That's not a reliable indicator for November. By most measures, Romney is in trouble with Hispanic voters, which means he's in trouble — period.
Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic group in the United States. Their votes may be decisive in crucial swing states, and they traditionally have voted for Democrats.
George W. Bush had dreams of turning that tradition around. He won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000, up from the 21 percent that Bob Dole had won in 1996. Then Bush won 40 percent in 2004 — the biggest percentage of any recent Republican president.
But the rally was over in 2008, when John McCain's share of the Hispanic vote dropped back down to 31 percent — below the 35 percent threshold that some strategists believe is essential for a Republican victory.
Hispanic affection for Republicans may be even lower than it was four years ago — driven by Republican opposition to the DREAM Act and an overall tone of disrespect, captured in the Arizona law that would let police demand proof of citizenship from anyone they considered suspicious — and alienating talk from Republican candidates, such as Herman Cain's calling for a 20-foot electrified barbed-wire fence with an alligator-filled moat.
In a recent Univision-ABC-Latino Decisions poll of Latino voters, 17 percent said Republicans are doing a good job of reaching out to Hispanics.
They gave President Barack Obama a 72 percent favorability rating — and Romney 28 percent.
In a head-to-head matchup, Romney polls worse. As Univision's Jorge Ramos told Romney: "If you were to run against President Obama, he would beat you easily with the Hispanic vote. You wouldn't even get 25 percent."
Romney parried with a joke, but his strategists weren't laughing — because they weren't watching. A top Romney strategist told The New Yorker that better communication with Hispanic voters is something he's "not immersed in at the moment."
That explains a lot.
Seeing as the job is vacant, let me play Romney's Hispanic outreach strategist:
Governor, there are two classic ways to win votes. You could run a "one of us" campaign, getting people to say: "He's one of us. He thinks like us; he'd fight for us." There aren't many demographics for which this would be an effective strategy for you.
Or you could run a "here's what I would do for you" campaign. It wouldn't be so effective as the "one of us" way, but it would be better than trying to run a "one of us" campaign when voters don't think you're one of them.
Your prospects are bad either way.
Nothing is more awkward or ineffective than an obvious outsider running a "one of us" campaign. It's too late for you to try to speak Hispanic.
But you can't campaign on the issues, either. You're opposed to the DREAM Act. You scolded Rick Perry for being too permissive on immigration. You're opposed to a strong federal role in education and the economy. Hispanics are not excited about unregulated free enterprise.
You have one option left. You could try to run a "one of us" campaign through a surrogate — your vice presidential selection.
Everyone is talking about Marco Rubio. He's young, handsome, passionate, articulate. But this could be tricky. He is Cuban-American, not Mexican-American, so even Rubio might not have the easiest time running a "one of us" campaign. Also, he has feuded with Univision — which is like feuding with the church if you're Catholic. So there would be risks. But he is someone you need to consider.
Another possibility is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He has been married to a Mexican-American woman for more than 35 years. They have three grown children. He not only cares deeply about the Hispanic community but also is a member of the community. He can be seen as "one of us."
Bush might consider the VP slot as being beneath him, sibling rivalry being what it is. But you ought to explore it. He could get you Florida and could help in swing states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.
Think it over. You need to do something bold. Without it, your Hispanic outreach this fall will be you standing awkwardly at Latino festivals, saying "me gusta su musica" and trying to avoid a sombrero photo op.
Tom Rosshirt was a national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.