Republicans Fight For The Latino Vote

More than 4.2 million Latinos live in the Sunshine State, and that population is in the spotlight as Republican presidential candidates battle to win Florida's upcoming primary. Host Michel Martin discusses this crucial voting bloc with Gary Segura of Latino Decisions, and the Associated Press's Hispanic Affairs reporter Laura Wides-Munoz.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the new film "Red Tails," a glossy adventure about the U.S. military's first black aviators soared above expectations when it earned $ 19 million in its opening weekend. We'll talk with one of the film's stars and one of the real pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to look ahead to the Republican primary in Florida. The winner-take-all contest will award 50 delegates to the top candidate, the biggest prize so far in the GOP race. And it comes as the race has narrowed and the remaining competitors are fighting for every vote. The frontrunners, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, are focusing on a key voting block, Latinos. So, we decided to do the same. And the candidates made their pitches for those voters on the Univision television network yesterday. Here's some of what Mr. Romney had to say about immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

MITT ROMNEY: I am not anti-immigrant, I'm pro-immigrant. I like immigration. Immigration has been an extraordinary source of strength in this country. As you I'm sure know, immigrants form more businesses than do domestic-born Americans.

MARTIN: There's a lot at stake in the January 31st contest. Recent data from the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos now comprise 13 percent of all registered voters in Florida and 11 percent of Republican voters.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Gary Segura, co-founder and principal of the polling group Latino Decisions. He's here with us in Washington, D.C. Welcome thanks for coming.

GARY SEGURA: Hi.

MARTIN: Also with us, Laura Wides-Munoz. She covers Hispanic affairs for The Associated Press, and she's with us from Miami. Thanks so much for joining us.

LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Gary, let's start with you. Let me just ask, you know, we are used to thinking of Latino voters in Florida as being largely concentrated in the Cuban-American community, very conservative, very Republican. Is that still true?

SEGURA: It is decreasingly true. So, over the last decade or two, the Florida Latino population has become increasingly diverse. Cubans are really only about 30 to 33 percent of the overall population - of the Latino population. They're still a larger share of the electorate because they're more engaged in politics, more likely to be citizens, but that numbers dropping as well. So, the influence of Cubans on Florida politics is on a long, slow decline.

MARTIN: On a long, slow decline. But what about within the Republican Party, which is what we're talking about right now?

SEGURA: Well, Cubans are concentrated in the Republican Party in Florida because of the historic anti-communism and the Castro issue. Again, Cuban exceptionalism on this dimension is starting to decline in part because younger Cubans are more diverse. They're more likely to choose a Democratic Party than their parents were for example. And I think, over time, they're becoming more like other Latinos.

MARTIN: And you have new data, because your group Latino Decisions came out with a poll about Latino voters in Florida and also nationwide. What are the top issues for Latino voters in Florida and is that the same as it is nationally?

SEGURA: Yes. So, Latino voters in Florida, Democrat and Republican, are remarkably consistent with Latino voters outside. There are two giant issues. The first and obviously is the economy and jobs. Everyone wants a job, everyone wants a good economy. And so, this is quite worrying to many Latinos. And I think the government data on unemployment and declines in personal wealth suggest that Latinos have really taken it on the chin. So, it's a very important issue nationwide and in Florida. And then the second issue would be immigration.

MARTIN: Would be immigration. Laura Wides-Munoz, tell us more about that if you would? What are you hearing?

WIDES-MUNOZ: Well, I think it's really interesting what you're saying because when you played that clip of Romney's speech I was there. And I spoke with the students who was at Miami-Dade College who were outside and what they thought of it. And I'll tell you that most of the students I interviewed who had participated were Columbian-Americans, Venezuelan-Americans, who were about to vote in their first election which is a sign of this growing diversity in the Florida vote.

That said, you know, Cubans are still the number one voters. And as much as they are sympathetic on the immigration issue to the rest of Latinos, that's not what they've said they're going to vote on.

MARTIN: What are they saying they're going to vote on? Is this still - is Cuba still number one?

WIDES-MUNOZ: No. And it really hasn't been for a long time. It's economics, you know, even among pretty hard-lined Cuban exiles who feel very strongly, except for a very small minority, it's the same as everyone else. I want to find out how I can ensure that my job is going to remain. How I can grow my business, so I can put food on the table for everyone else.

What was interesting - I had a conversation with some folks in the diner the other day. Puerto Rican Republicans and they were much stronger on immigration. They put that as their priority. They said, well, you know, they should be able to have a path to legalization to become citizens, and vote, and have all the rights of citizens. But interestingly enough, and this really speaks a larger truth, they hadn't voted in eight years or longer. And Puerto Ricans, while they tend to be more independent and tend to put immigration as a high priority, are far less likely to vote than Cubans in Florida.

MARTIN: We're looking ahead to the Florida primary. The Florida Republican primary, it's January 31st. We're focusing on Latino voters in Florida. And learning what we can about their preferences and also nationwide. Our guests are Laura Wides-Munoz Hispanic Affairs Writer for The Associated Press. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us is Gary Segura. He's co-founder and principal of the polling group Latino Decisions.

Laura, stay with me for a minute on the immigration issue. You know, you recently wrote about how Florida Latino voters viewed Mitt Romney's position on The Dream Act. Now that would create a path to citizenship for a very specific group. These are people - kids who were brought here as young children and who want to go to college, serve in the military, and there would be a kind of a smoother path, you know, for them. The argument being it wasn't their decision to come here, you know, outside of authorization. These are people who are going to, you know, play a role in the future of the country. Romney has come out against that. How is that playing?

WIDES-MUNOZ: Well, again, it's something that even Cuban-Americans tend to support like other Latinos very much. They see, you know, young students who are trying to better themselves, working hard. That they believe they should be rewarded. At the same time, people are worried about their jobs. And if they had to pick a priority, they're going to vote on the economy. And I think that was laid out.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart has been a champion. He's a congressman from South Florida here and he's been a champion of the DREAM Act and other immigration rights efforts for immigrants. And he said very frankly, I disagree with Romney on this, but I am backing him because I agree with him on some of the other points, and chiefly the economy.

MARTIN: Gary Segura, what is your polling show about how Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, is doing?

SEGURA: He's actually doing better than you would have expected among Latino Republicans who intend to vote in a primary. He's still out-polling speaker Gingrich, even though Gingrich has this reputation of being more interested and engaged in the Latino community. And part of that is consistent with what we just heard, which is that all of the South Florida Republican representatives have really embraced Mitt Romney.

MARTIN: And why is that?

SEGURA: I think it's in part because Latino Republicans are more moderate than most other Republicans in general. And you would have expected ideologically otherwise that they would have embraced Mitt Romney. They certainly also want to win. I do think that after their endorsement when he came out and promised to veto the DREAM Act, it did put Diaz-Balart and (unintelligible) and others in a somewhat uncomfortable position.

But that said, it is clear that Romney's promise to veto the DREAM Act has hurt him among Latino's nationally. And when we move out of the primary process and into the general election, that is going to be hung around his neck repeatedly by Democratic operatives.

MARTIN: Laura what about Marco Rubio, the newly elected junior senator from Florida, very attractive candidate, widely touted as a possible vice presidential pick for somebody. Where does he stand?

WIDES-MUNOZ: I just want to talk about one thing Gary said...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

WIDES-MUNOZ: ...which is that just on the ground talking to folks over the last week. I've seen a significant shift, even since last Friday, in terms of confidence and strong support for Romney among Cuban exiles. Last week, it was Romney. He's the guy who can win. This week it's, you know, that guy with the gray hair Gingrich, I'm taking another look at him. So...

MARTIN: And he supports the DREAM Act?

WIDES-MUNOZ: He doesn't, either. Both of them support a law that would allow people to join the military and become citizens, but not complete college and get a path to citizenship.

MARTIN: So his position isn't that different.

WIDES-MUNOZ: It's not that different, but he didn't come out and say: I would veto it. And that was something that Romney did, which really struck people as sort of, why do that? Why go that far? And also, Romney's been campaigning with one of the architects of one of the strongest and harshest laws, the SB 1070 in Arizona.

MARTIN: And there were also - there was also an ad campaign directed at Romney - at Mitt Romney briefly by Newt Gingrich, which hammered him as taking an anti-immigrant stance, as I understand it. That ad has since been taken down, apparently.

WIDES-MUNOZ: Which is a great segue to Rubio, because it has been taken down. In fact, Rubio's asking, he said, look. You know, people have different views on immigration. Let's stop calling people racist because they don't support the DREAM Act. Let's talk about it more civilly, and that really speaks to Rubio's influence within the GOP Party, as well as the delicate line he's walking on issues of immigration of great importance to Hispanics.

MARTIN: Has he endorsed, though?

WIDES-MUNOZ: He has not endorsed. We don't expect him to. And while he is considered a great catch as a vice presidential candidate for many reasons, he's also very new. He's been in Congress less than a year, and I think there's some idea that he would need to be vetted a little bit more. Also, he's very young. He's 40. Even if he sat out the next two elections, he'd still be a pretty young candidate if he decided to run at the top of the ticket.

MARTIN: And that's a good place to end. Gary, I'll ask you the final question. In the general election in 2008, President Obama won more than 60 percent of Latino votes, despite the fact that, earlier in the primary, there had been all this talk about how, you know, Latinos wouldn't vote for an African-American and all this other stuff, all of which sort of proved untrue.

Talk to me a little bit about how you see the general election shaping up and, obviously, given that, as we said, that Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney don't seem to be very different on the question of immigration, although there are differences in how they're viewed in terms of the economy. So just handicap it for us, if you would.

SEGURA: Sure. In 2008, as you mentioned, the exit polls showed Barack Obama getting about two-thirds of the Latino vote. And the question this time is: Are Latinos sufficiently disappointed in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, in their current economic positions, so that they would lose their enthusiasm?

But Latino enthusiasm for the Republican Party is really approaching an all-time low. A huge percentage of respondents in our polls tell us that they think the Republican Party either doesn't care about them or is actively hostile to their interests. And, of course, they have some pieces of information to build that on. So the question for handicapping the 2012 is, though Latino vote preference would overwhelmingly tilt towards the Democrats - I would say, again, at least two-thirds - will they turn out and vote? And I think that's largely going to be driven by the content of the campaign.

MARTIN: Gary Segura is the cofounder and principal of the polling group Latino Decisions. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Laura Wides-Munoz covers Hispanic affairs for the Associated Press, and she was kind enough to join us from NPR member station WLRN in Miami.

Thank you both so much for joining us. Keep us posted.

SEGURA: Thanks for having me.

WIDES-MUNOZ: Thank you.

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