Every day, around 1,600 U.S. citizens of Latin American extraction are turning 18, voting age, and add to the fastest-growing segment of the American electorate. Almost 22 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in November and how many of them turn out may well decide who will be the next U.S. president.
A series of recent polls show that Latinos favor President Barack Obama over any of the Republican presidential hopefuls, with a comfortable 70 percent to 14 percent over Mitt Romney, the man most likely to win the Republican nomination at the end of a primary campaign marked by often shrill anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Obama is so confident that he primary debates have driven Latinos away from the Republican party that he told the Spanish-language television network Univision last November there was no need for his campaign to run negative ads on the Republican presidential hopefuls. Instead, “we may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim. We won’t even comment on them…and people can make up their own minds.”
Among debate highlights that stick in the collective memory was the electrified Mexican-U.S. border fence suggested by Herman Cain, who soon after dropped out of the race, and Mitt Romney’s idea that illegal immigrants would chose “self-deportation…because they can’t find work here, because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here.” Newt Gingrich, who is still in the primary contest but whose star is fading, described self-deportation as a fantasy.
The president’s confidence of winning Latino support again – he took 67 percent of their vote in 2008 — is partly based on history: Republicans have lost the Latino vote in every presidential election since 1972. But it would be a mistake for Obama to take that support for granted, not least because he broke an election campaign promise to produce a bill on immigration reform in his first year in office.