Obama's challenge: Convince Latinos he's more than the anti-GOP vote

President Barack Obama points to his earpiece, as he explains to the audience, that he is receiving translations during his town hall with students, parents and teachers at Bell Multicultural High School, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, Monday, March 28, 2011.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Barack Obama
President Obama points to his earpiece, as he explains to the audience, that he is receiving translations during his town hall with students, parents and teachers at Bell Multicultural High School, in Washington, March 28, 2011.

If there was any doubt over the growing clout of Latino voters, the data released by the U.S. Census last week should put it to rest: Hispanics accounted for more than half of the U.S. population increase over the last decade and now make up the largest minority group in America, accounting for more than 16 percent of the population.

It's still unclear whether the Republican party will heed advice from moderates within their party to be more welcoming to the growing demographic. As the 2012 election nears, however, it appears President Obama sees the writing on the wall and is taking steps to solidify his relationship with Latino voters.

At a town hall on education at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington on Monday, Mr. Obama reaffirmed his commitment to a piece of legislation that is critically important to many young Latinos -- the DREAM Act, which would give certain undocumented youth a pathway to citizenship.

The young people who could be impacted by that legislation, Mr. Obama said, "should know that they have a president who believes in them and will continue to fight for them and try to make sure that they have full opportunities in this country."

Hosting town halls with the Hispanic community could help reassure the Latino community that the president is on their side. Polls, not to mention election results, indicate that Democrats have little to worry about when it comes to voter loyalty among Latinos. In the 2010 midterms, strong support from the Hispanic community helped bolster Democrats in tough races, including California Sen. Barbara Boxer, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and Washington Sen. Patty Murray.

Yet some contend that Hispanics' allegiance to the Democratic party stems more from an aversion to anti-immigration elements of the Republican party.

"The turnout in 2010 was an anti-Republican turnout and a pro-Latino turnout," Matt Barreto, pollster and associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, told Hotsheet. Hispanic support in 2012, he said, "is not going to be a given unless Democrats really engage that community." Alternatively, he said, "you might just have low turnout."

A February poll from Latino Decisions, the polling organization Barreto founded, suggests that Democratic outreach to the Latino community has so far been negligible. When asked whether the Democratic party has done a good job reaching out to Hispanics, 52 percent of Latino respondents said yes. By comparison, just 18 percent said the Republican party has done a good job, but there is certainly room for improvement within Mr. Obama's party.

"There's a learning factor that needs to happen by both parties," Gloria Montano Greene, director of the Washington office for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, told Hotsheet. "How do you talk to this community, how do you include this community in your campaign? The more you isolate them, the more unsuccessful you'll be as a party."

That means having a constant Spanish media presence, a strong Latino get-out-the-vote effort, speaking out against anti-Latino rhetoric and including Latinos in policy decisions, Greene said. Sen. Harry Reid's 2010 election campaign is often looked to as a model of how to do that, both Greene and Barreto said.

Mr. Obama's town hall on education may be a good first step, given that education has traditionally been a relatively important issue for the Latino community.

However, Monday's town hall represents "a conversation that needs to be taken to the next level," to actually bring about results, Greene said. Improving educational attainment goals are particularly important to the Latino community; only about 57 percent of Latino students graduate with a regular high school diploma.

Carmel Martin, assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development at the Department of Education, told Hotsheet that the Obama administration has outlined aggressive goals to improve educational attainment for all students, including the Hispanic community. The president has been very focused on a comprehensive early learning agenda, she said, since getting a good start in school has been shown to improve a student's chances for success.

Furthermore, Martin said, the president has already made gains in education with his Race to the Top program and investments made through the stimulus package.

But while the president has managed to move forward some of his education agenda, the DREAM Act remains stalled in Congress.

"I have to say without being partisan that the majority of my party, the Democrats, I got their votes to get this passed, but we need a little bit of help from the other side," Mr. Obama said in his town hall. "And so all of you need to contact your members of Congress, contact your members of the Senate, and let them know that this is something that is the right thing to do."

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama so far has little to show for his support for a comprehensive immigration agenda, Barreto pointed out.

"The only thing he's done is increase the number of deportations and raids," Barreto said. As Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano told Congress earlier this month, the Obama administration has made record numbers of deportations of individuals in the U.S. illegally - both overall and in terms of criminal aliens. The Latino community is regularly reminded of that fact on Univision and other Spanish media, Barreto said.

"In some ways, by focusing on education he's sort of shifting the focus away from other issues within his purview to control," he said.