Mitt Romney's campaign has set a precise target for the share of the Hispanic vote it needs to win to defeat President Obama: 38 percent.
That's a significant step up from the 31 percent of the Latino vote won by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom Obama thumped while winning a number of key states where Hispanic voters are an important constituency, including Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.
Romney has to do better than McCain, and his advisers have set a goal that is just below the approximately 40 percent share of the Hispanic vote President George W. Bush won in 2004.
Polls suggest Romney's magic number with Hispanics might be a tough mark to hit. Obama led Romney 67 to 23 percent with Latino voters in a poll conducted in late July poll by NBC News, The Wall Street Journal and Telemundo.
While Romney has softened his rhetoric on illegal immigration since he ran hard to the right on the issue during the primary, and polls show Latino support for President Obama is soft, there have been no indications that Romney has made up any ground with the key voting bloc in recent months. That's a worrisome sign for a candidate who admitted at an April fundraising event that his campaign was “doomed” if he didn’t improve his standing with Latino voters.
Obama's executive order to halt deportations on certain undocumented
immigrants brought to the United States at a young age also helped improve his standing
with some Latino voters and undercut a push by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
to craft a GOP alternative version of the DREAM Act. Romney was left
holding the bag, struggling to explain whether he'd uphold the
Romney's party isn't helping him. On Tuesday, the GOP platform committee added tough language to the official party position that says laws like Arizona's tough measure should be "encouraged, not attacked."
Romney has already surpassed McCain in terms of Hispanic outreach — bilingual phone banks run by his campaign and the Republican National Committee have so far made more than 10 million voter contacts, according to a GOP source. But Obama’s campaign has also been heavily targeting Latino voters, and outspent Romney by a wide margin this summer on Spanish-language television and radio.
Romney himself has done few campaign stops with Latino voters outside of a June speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and a few stops in Florida, where the Cuban-heavy Hispanic population leans Republican.
Fuentes admitted that the Romney campaign had a lot of ground to make up with Hispanic voters — but argued that he could close the gap with Obama.
“It is true that the Obama campaign has had kind of a free ride for the last few months because we are constrained by the legal limitations of not being the official candidate of the party yet,” he said. “That will change on Thursday next week when Gov. Romney accepts the nomination, and that will liberate for us a lot of resources that haven't been available.”
While declining to offer specifics, Fuentes said that “very aggressive messaging on the ground will be in full swing by next week” during the convention, with Spanish-language events every day and a number of top Latino Republicans featured during the convention itself, including Rubio, who will introduce Romney at the convention, and the first lady of Puerto Rico, Luce Vela Fortuño (R), who will introduce Ann Romney. Fuentes also promised a much more persistent focus on Latino voters in the coming weeks.
“There will be a lot of advertising in Spanish with Hispanic-original messaging and production. In the past we've just been translating Spanish from some of the ads to keep costs down. That is changing already. There's going to be a very aggressive media campaign.”
Turnout is also a key. Even if Obama wins a huge majority of the Latino vote, it won't help him if the total turnout of Latino voters is much lower.
The Romney campaign is betting Hispanics disappointed with the economic recovery under Obama won't come out in high numbers for the president this year.
Romney launched his first Spanish-language-specific ad last week, a spot that slammed Obama on the economy and pointed out that the Latino unemployment rate was over 10 percent.
Republican strategists argue it is just as important for Romney to convince Democratic-leaning Hispanic voters to stay home as it is to convince them to vote for him.
Romney's messaging effort with Hispanics is crucial.
The Hispanic population has continued to grow at a fast clip, and more and more Latinos are registered every year. The Hispanic vote could prove especially crucial in Florida, Colorado and Nevada, and to a lesser extent in states with smaller but fast-growing Latino communities, like North Carolina and Virginia.
Fuentes argued that Latino voters were just starting to tune in to the election, and that the Obama campaign’s big summer push with Latinos hadn’t moved the needle much.
“Now our work is pretty much cut out for us in terms of being able to present Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to the Hispanic community — they don't know these two guys — and then explaining why Gov. Romney would be a better president for them,” he said.
This story was updated at 8:52 a.m.