WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - President Obama has built an overwhelming lead among Latino voters, a nationwide USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of Hispanics finds, as Republican challenger Mitt Romney faces a difficult path ahead to make inroads among what has been the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group for a generation.
The president leads Romney 66%-25% among more than 1,000 Latino registered voters surveyed April 16 to May 31, matching his muscular showing in the 2008 election among Hispanics. Romney is in the weakest position among Latinos of any presidential contender since 1996 - and in those intervening 16 years their percentage of the electorate has doubled.
Since the poll was taken, Obama has fortified Hispanic enthusiasm by announcing he would block the deportation of an estimated 800,000 undocumented young Latinos who were brought to the United States as children. In a subsequent USA TODAY/Gallup survey, taken Wednesday-Saturday, more than eight in 10 Latinos approved of the president's action, most of them strongly.
"I've seen that affect a lot of families, so that's actually something I'm pretty much in favor of," says Jonny Rozyla, 22, a college student from Anoka, Minn., a poll respondent who was interviewed by phone. His mother was born in the United States and his father emigrated from Mexico. Rozyla says he "strongly disagrees" with Romney's statements about a controversial Arizona immigration law. "I don't think he's for the people, mostly," he says of Romney. "He's more for the rich than the poor."
Romney's troubles with Hispanic voters are likely to be spotlighted this week if the Supreme Court, as expected, rules on the constitutionality of the Arizona law, which requires police to check a person's immigration status when there is reasonable doubt about it.
During the GOP primaries, Romney endorsed the right of Arizona and other states to pass laws on immigration. And in recent days, he has sidestepped questions about whether he would overturn Obama's action blocking some deportations.
In a positive sign for the GOP over the long term, the poll finds a generational shift among Latinos that could open the door for Republicans as this immigrant group, like the ones that went before it, deepens its roots in the United States. But for the next four months of this election year, Romney's path is steeply uphill.
"He has the most conservative position on immigration reform of any nominee of our lifetime," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina says. "It's not the only issue Latino voters care about, but it is an important issue that shows people whose side they are on, and it's clear that Mitt Romney's against them."
Romney campaign pollster Neil Newhouse says the economy is the top issue for Latinos, as for other voters.
"President Obama's last-minute pandering to Hispanics can't make up for his record of failed policies that have resulted in Hispanics comprising fully one-third of Americans who are living in poverty," Newhouse says. "Once Hispanic voters realize the president's broken promises to their community, Gov. Romney will win more than his share of their votes. This is why our campaign has been ramping up efforts to get our message to Americans of Hispanic descent."
On Friday, Romney announced Hispanic "Juntos con Romney" ("Together with Romney") teams in 15 states, and his campaign has begun airing more TV and radio ads on Spanish-language stations. In a speech to a convention of Hispanic officials in Orlando on Thursday, he took a softer tone on immigration than he had when battling for the Republican nomination.
He received a friendly reception from NALEO, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. But Obama, who spoke Friday, got a jubilant one.
Romney's comments during the GOP primaries are creating serious obstacles for him now. He promised to veto a proposal that would provide a path to citizenship for young Latinos brought here illegally as children, and he said he wouldn't have voted to confirm the woman who became the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.
"Running an ad that says, 'I would never vote for Sonia Sotomayor,' 'I would veto the DREAM Act' - those are really easy things to crystallize and repeat," says Sylvia Manzano, a political scientist at Texas A&M University who studies Hispanic politics.
A generational shift?
The USA TODAY Poll's findings offer encouragement for Republicans down the road. Among second-generation Latinos - that is, those whose parents were born in the United States - attitudes about the role of government shift significantly and openness to conservative policies expand.
That doesn't mean Republicans are guaranteed to gain Hispanic support over time, but it does mean there will be more opportunities for them to do so. That raises questions about the argument by some analysts that the nation's changing demographics all but ensure Democratic majorities in the future.
Consider: On a list of a half-dozen issues, Latino registered voters who immigrated to the U.S. themselves rate immigration policies, a particular sore point with the GOP, as their highest priority. Latinos whose parents were born here rank immigration last.
Parker Maldonado, 43, a financial adviser from Goddard, Kan., who was called in the poll, is more concerned about pocketbook issues and argues that other Hispanics should be, too. His grandmother came from Puerto Rico and his grandfather emigrated from Spain. "Immigration is not going to mean anything if our economy doesn't improve," he says.
Asked about the issues most important to him, Joel Gomez, 31, who emigrated from Mexico 10 years ago, praises Obama's recent step for young Hispanics. "That's a relief for Latinos," says the Maryland construction worker, who was surveyed in Spanish. "We can walk without fear through the streets."
Gomez, who became a U.S. citizen three years ago, is inclined to cast his first presidential vote for Obama. Maldonado says he is likely to vote for Romney.
In the USA TODAY survey, Latino registered voters who immigrated say by almost 5-to-1 that the government should do more to solve our country's problems (a generally liberal view) rather than saying the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses (a generally conservative view).
Among registered Hispanic voters who are the U.S.-born children of immigrants, that ratio narrows to nearly 2-1.
And among those whose parents were born in the U.S., the split is about even.
The findings are based on a nationwide poll of 1,753 Hispanic adults, including 1,005 registered voters, taken in English and Spanish from April 16 to May 31. The margin of error is +/- 3 percentage points for the full sample and +/- 4 for registered voters only. The poll was supplemented by a survey Wednesday through Saturday of 424 Hispanics.
Obama scores a wide lead among all three Hispanic groups, supported by 72% of Latino registered voters who immigrated themselves and by 69% of those with at least one immigrant parent. Among those whose parents were born in the USA, 58% support the president.
Still, Romney does twice as well among second-generation Latinos compared with immigrants. Among immigrant voters, just 18% support Romney. That number rises to 22% among the children of at least one immigrant parent and to 35% among Hispanics whose families have been in the U.S. for two generations or more.
Democratic pollster Margie Omero says she heard threads of "generational movement and shift" in a focus group of Hispanic women in Las Vegas this month that she helped run with Republican pollster Alex Bratty. The session was part of a series sponsored by Wal-Mart on middle-income women seen as swing voters and dubbed "Wal-Mart Moms."
"They talked about what their parents went through and how different that was from what they were going through, and their children," she says. "That's what we've seen with immigrant communities over our history. Each generation faces a different type of struggle, a different kind of interaction with the American community."
Obama pollster Joel Benenson cautions, though, that what he calls a "damaged" relationship between the GOP and many Hispanic voters at a time Latino political power is rising will make those negative attitudes hard to reshape, even decades from now.
"What's the defining dynamic politically at the point at which you become engaged in voting and politics?" he asks. "We've gone through people who came in through the anti-war movement or the women's movement or the civil rights movement in the late '60s, early '70s. You had Reagan Democrats... who were in the early formative years of their politics when they voted for Reagan in the '80s. Those things that are really vibrant at the time you come into the political system can shape your thinking for a long time."
A growing advantage
Whatever the long-term prospects for the GOP, in this election year Obama is solidifying the big gains he scored among Hispanics in 2008. Surveys of voters as they left polling places then found that 67% of Latinos voted for him, up by double digits from Democrat John Kerry's share four years earlier and about the same level of support he has now.
That advantage is increasingly powerful. An analysis of U.S. Census data by Mark Lopez of the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center shows that the proportion of Latino eligible voters grew from 2008 to 2010 in seven of the 12 battleground states likely to determine November's outcome - potentially a critical margin in a close election.
Meanwhile, the Republican share of the Latino vote continues to erode, from 44% for George W. Bush in 2004 to 31% for John McCain in 2008 to 25% in the survey for Romney. "We've seen a sharp drop-off ... between 2004 and 2008," acknowledges Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser and former Republican Party national chairman. "It was a factor, obviously, in the margin of President Obama's win. We do need to do better with Hispanic voters, and I think we can."
GOP strategist Leslie Sanchez estimates Romney needs the votes of 35% of Latinos to be competitive in November.
A senior Obama campaign official who was willing to speak about strategy only on condition of anonymity puts the bar higher in some key states. He calculates Romney needs to get a bit more than 40% of the Hispanic vote to win the battlegrounds of Florida and Nevada, where Latinos make up a significant share of the electorate.
Harsh rhetoric and hard-line policies toward illegal immigrants have soured many Latinos toward the GOP, even those who aren't particularly concerned about immigration for themselves and their families. "It's the lens by which Hispanic voters view the Republican Party," says Sanchez, author of Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other. "It's the tinted lens."
In the roundtable discussion in Las Vegas, nine Latinas talked about their lives, their families and the election. The focus group was streamed live to a small group of reporters in Washington, D.C. They saw their votes as mattering: "We're a community, and we want our voice to be heard," Karla Luarte, the mother of three, said as heads nodded around the table.
Six of the women had voted for Obama in 2008, but several expressed disappointment in him now. Some have seen family members struggle to find a job; others have had trouble holding on to their houses. They note he has failed to enact the comprehensive immigration legislation he promised during the 2008 campaign.
They didn't know much about Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, though his business experience impressed some. The aspirational message of the American dream, which is what many Republicans say they offer, struck a chord as they talked about their hopes for their children.
Still, asked which candidate they trusted more on immigration, eight hands went up for Obama and one for Romney.