(WASHINGTON) -- For the first time in this presidential election, both President Obama and Mitt Romney this week will directly address Latinos, a crucial voting bloc that could swing this fall’s race for the White House.
On Thursday, Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, will speak to the annual conference held by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). On Friday. it's Obama’s turn. The dueling speeches highlight both parties’ push to win the support of the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc.
The battlelines appear to be drawn. Obama enjoys a huge edge among Latinos, as he has dating back to his 2008 victory over Sen. John McCain. That year, Obama won 67 percent of the Latino vote -- and this year he looks poised to do even better, especially on the heels of his announcement last Friday that his administration would not seek to deport up to 800,000 children of illegal immigrants living in this country.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier this spring revealed 73 percent of Latinos backing Obama, compared with only 26 percent for Romney. Since last Friday’s move by the White House, polls have shown a nearly double-digit jump in support for Obama among Latinos.
Obama’s decision to relax the country’s deportation laws directly answered one of the main gripes that Latinos had previously expressed about his tenure in the Oval Office: his failure to deal with immigration reform. Despite promising comprehensive reforms when he was on the campaign trail in 2008, Obama never followed through, despite enjoying a Democrat-controlled Congress during his first two years in Washington.
Even the DREAM Act, a scaled-back immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants who join the military or attend college, failed to pass the Senate in late 2009. The new White House policy to offer temporary work permits to young illegal immigrants who came into this country as children is similar to the DREAM Act.
“The announcement on June 14 appears to have clearly erased Obama’s enthusiasm deficit among Latinos,” said Matt Barreto, a researcher at Latino Decisions and associate professor of political science at the University of Washington.
If Obama has any cause for concern about Latinos, it may be turnout. The number of registered Latino voters dropped significantly in recent years -- and projections on how many Latinos will vote in November, once as high as 12.2 million according to NALEO, now hover around 10.5 million, according to the William C. Velasquez Institute.
Still, Romney is in a much more difficult position. Not only is he facing an opponent who won Latinos by more than a two-to-one margin in the last election, but he also has to address criticism from Latinos after a series of controversial comments during the GOP primary. The former Massachusetts governor vowed to veto the DREAM Act, praised Arizona’s controversial new anti-immigrant law, and touted the endorsement of controversial anti-immigration activist Kris Kobach.
If Romney cannot boost his standing among Latinos to around 40 percent support, then according to Republican strategist Ana Navarro earlier this year, “He can kiss the White House goodbye.”
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