Women and Latino voters are two groups that went strongly for President Obama in 2008, but GOP strategist and pollster Whit Ayres believes they could swing towards Republicans once attention shifts to the economy in the general election.
“The No. 1 issue in the Latino community is the economy and jobs,” said Ayres, president of the influential conservative think tank North Star Opinion Research, at a breakfast discussion hosted by The Christian Science Monitor Thursday.
Similarly, Ayres believes that the focus on social issues, which some contend is hurting GOP support among women, will ease once the heated primary season ends.
“Many of these social issues … are going to disappear once Mitt Romney gets the nomination. He’s going to be talking about jobs and the economy,” he predicted.
Polls, though, suggest Republicans face challenges in winning those voters during the November face off with President Obama.
Republicans are entering the election season with a massive deficit among Latinos.
In a Fox News Latino survey released Monday, none of the Republican candidates took more than 14 percent of Latino support in head-to-head match-ups against President Obama. Seventy-three percent said they approved of the job the president has been doing, well above Gallup’s national average of 44 percent.
But perhaps the worst finding for the GOP in the poll was that Obama took a plurality among Latinos that supported Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the GOP nominee in the 2008 presidential race, with 40 percent saying they would not vote for a Republican candidate again in 2012.
Both GOP front-runners, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, are on record as opposing the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States — which 90 percent of Latino voters say they support.
But according to Ayres, it’s not the policy surrounding the immigration debate so much as the candidates’ rhetoric that is hurting Republicans with Latinos.
“An awful lot of the discussion on immigration involves tone,” Ayres said. “You cannot come across as someone who doesn’t care about the concerns of Latinos. There’s not unanimity among Hispanics about what should be done about immigration, but there is certainly unanimity that they don’t want someone who acts like they don’t care about the votes and support of Latinos.”
Ayres pointed to former President George W. Bush as an example of a Republican who “reached out to Hispanic voters and clearly was comfortable with Hispanic culture.” In 2004, the Texas governor won 44 percent of the Latino vote nationally, and a majority in the Sunbelt States.
But that kind of connection doesn’t play to Romney’s strengths, and he might have further damaged his standing among Latinos at a Republican debate in late January in Florida, in which he said he advocated “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants, which was then hit by critics as an insensitive remark.
“That’s not quickly forgotten, particularly in the Latino community,” Ayres said.
Ayres said that a deep bench of up-and-coming Republican Latino lawmakers — including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is frequently mentioned as a potential candidate for vice president, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) — will contribute to making inroads with Latinos.
But according to the Fox News poll, even adding a popular Latino vice presidential candidate would not dramatically alter the landscape. Only 20 percent said they would be more willing to vote for a GOP ticket that included Martinez, while 25 percent said they’d be more willing to support a ticket with Florida's Rubio.
For 2012 at least, the GOP focus won’t be on claiming a majority of the Latino voters, but rather on making inroads with the group in key battleground states, while keeping an eye on the long-term trend.
“We’re not stupid, we can count,” Ayres said. “It’s pretty obvious that we can’t continue to lose Latinos two to one like we did in 2008 and remain competitive as a national party. If we don’t do better among Latinos, we’re not going to be talking about how to win Florida in the presidential race, we’re going to be talking about how not to lose Texas. And you can’t put the pieces together in the electoral college if you concede California, New York and Texas to Democrats.”
The Republican gender gap problem is considerably simpler and not nearly as severe, says Ayres.
Democrats have looked to capitalize on recent controversies surrounding contraception and abortion, blasting Republicans for what they call a “war on women.”
But Ayres says his polling suggests that the issue hardly moved the needle in favor of Democrats.
“There has been some movement but it’s concentrated in those groups that are already predisposed to leaning Democratic, like unmarried women,” he said. “It’s not the kind of movement where you look at it and go, 'Oh, things are hopeless.' ”
Obama outscored McCain by 13 percent among women in 2008, and at a press conference on Tuesday, the president said that “Democrats have a better story to tell to women about how we're going to solidify the middle class and grow this economy, make sure everybody has a fair shot.”
Ann Romney, the wife of the GOP front-runner, shot back just hours later.
"Do you know what women care about? Women care about jobs," she said. "They're angry, and they're furious about the entitlement debt that we're leaving for our children."
Ayres says that economic message will be the winning argument for Republicans among women, and blamed Santorum, whom he does not believe will be the party’s eventual nominee, for “amping up” the social issues.
“We’re sitting here in March, and my guess is that in September and October those controversies will be a distant memory,” he said. “The nominee is going to focus the debate on those issues that he believes are most important to most voters, and that does not include some of these side issues that have dominated headlines over the last few weeks.”