Opinion: Why Is Obama's Latino Lead So Large?

PHOTO: Hundreds of job applicants attend the DeSoto County Job Fair at Landers Center, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, in Southaven, Miss.

The Commercial Appeal, Stan Carrol/AP Photo

The latest national polls of Latinos indicate that President Obama's lead over GOP nominee Mitt Romney, already very large, is just getting larger.

The latest Latino Decisions (LD) tracking poll has Obama leading by 52 points (72-20) among registered voters, while the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll of Latinos has him ahead by 50 points (71-21) among likely voters. By comparison, Obama carried Latinos by "only" 36 points in 2008.

Why is Obama's lead so large? Conventional wisdom attributes his lead to the generally hardline positions Romney has taken on immigration issues, which has pushed away Latinos from the GOP ticket. In contrast, Obama has supported the DREAM Act and created his "mini-DREAM" deferred action program.

There is truth to this conventional wisdom but it does leave out some very important factors. Immigration, after all, while hugely important to Hispanic voters, is not the only issue that concerns them by any means. Jobs and the economy are also of the highest importance, hardly surprising given the state of today's economy. Indeed, in the LD tracking poll, 54 percent thought jobs and the economy was the most important issue facing the Latino community, compared to 39 percent who thought it was immigration reform and the DREAM act.

It is this strong concern with the economy that helps explain how Obama could have such an unusually large lead. On question after question on the economy, Obama is favored by very wide margins among Hispanic voters. In the LD poll, voters chose Obama over Romney by 72-20 as the one they have confidence in to improve economic conditions. Similarly, in the Telemundo poll, 58 percent believe Obama is better prepared to create jobs and improve the economy over the next four years, while just 22 percent think Romney is better prepared. And by 76 to nine percent, Latinos see Obama as best able to look out for the middle class.

Latino voters also believe conditions have started to improve on Obama's watch. In the same poll, by 60 percent to 32 percent they believe the economy is recovering and by 50 percent to 9 percent they think the economy will get better, not worse, over the next twelve months.

Clearly economic issues are contributing greatly to current high levels of support for Obama among Hispanics. It seems likely that the positive September jobs report—issued after these polls were conducted—will only enhance Obama's standing among this group.

Obama's very large margins among Hispanic voters are an important reason why Obama remains now a favorite for reelection this November, despite this week's post-debate polling hiccup. But there are lessons here for both parties that go beyond this election. For the GOP, it means that simply softening their position on immigration may not be enough to make substantial inroads into the Hispanic vote. They will also have to convince these voters they know to improve the economy and provide more economic opportunity.

For Democrats, it means that maintaining their position as the more tolerant and responsive party on immigration issues may not be enough to consolidate Latino voters' support over the long haul. If Obama is reelected, he will still have to deliver the robust economic growth these voters need to realize their economic aspirations. This may be difficult.

Consider the growth rate in the quarter century after World War II. From 1947 to 1973, real GDP grew by 4 percent per year, with real family income rising nearly 3 percent per year. This is the growth spurt that really created the American mass middle class.

But after the early 1970's growth slowed significantly, down to a 2.7 percent rate between 1973 and 2011, with of course a massive spike in inequality. And since 2000, growth has been particularly slow, just 1.6 percent per year (this figure incidentally matches the growth rate so far this year). It is difficult for most Americans to move ahead very fast in this constrained economic environment, particularly an economically disadvantaged group like Latinos.

So why isn't Obama attacking the growth problem head on in this campaign with a clear, specific program to promote growth? Wednesday's debate with Mitt Romney was just the latest time in the campaign where he passed on an opportunity to do so. The reason is not mysterious: it's politically difficult to put forward such specifics in a campaign context. A call for an immediate increase in government spending, however justified in economic terms, would be quite controversial. And even the president's long-range plans on education, infrastructure, and energy, while individually popular, would invite criticism for their costs.

That is fine for now in the sense that Obama can probably retain Hispanics' support in this election without highlighting specific plans for immediate and sustainable growth. The economy is still recovering, albeit slowly, and these voters give him credit for getting the country out of a deep economic crisis that they largely blame on his predecessor. Plus, he can talk about his general budgetary and policy priorities, which are broadly popular, in contrast to Romney's priorities (tax cuts for the rich, massive spending cuts, voucherizing Medicare and rolling back financial regulations), which are broadly unpopular. Obama may not be offering a specific plan for growth but Romney's approach strikes many Latino voters as a retread of the policies that tanked the economy to begin with.

Given this dynamic, the Obama campaign is likely right that it would lose more than it would gain by specifying a growth plan. But that doesn't make growth any less necessary—a reality that Obama will have to confront if he is reelected. If he does not figure out a way to ignite growth and keep it going, his Hispanic support will probably erode significantly.

A second Obama administration would therefore be well advised to make economic growth its number one priority from the moment of his inauguration. If deals have to be cut with the GOP, it should be with that priority in mind; a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction that does nothing for growth is a political loser. Obama will get little credit for the deficit reduction and plenty of blame for the lack of growth. And the opportunity to consolidate Hispanic support at a very high level will be lost.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC/Univision.

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Why Is Obama's Latino Lead So Large?