Who Will Clinch The Latino Vote In November?

There are big questions about Mitt Romney's ability to appeal to Latinos. Hispanic voters favor President Obama over Romney by more than two to one, according to a recent Pew poll. But not everyone is sure the president's lead will translate to votes. Host Michel Martin speaks with columnist Ruben Navarrette and Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Still to come - just months ago the world was celebrating the peaceful secession and independence of South Sudan, but now Sudan and South Sudan seem poised on the brink of war. We'll try to find out why in just a few minutes.

But first we want to talk about presidential politics in this country. The race for the White House seems to be moving into a new phase after Mitt Romney swept contests in five northeastern states on Tuesday. He focused his victory speech on President Barack Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: What do we have to show for three and a half years of President Obama?

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD NOISE)

ROMNEY: Is it easier to make ends meet?

CROWD: No.

ROMNEY: Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one?

CROWD: No.

ROMNEY: Have you saved what you needed for retirement?

CROWD: No.

ROMNEY: Are you making more at your job?

CROWD: No.

MARTIN: The former Massachusetts governor and now presumptive Republican presidential nominee and President Obama are neck and neck at this early stage of the campaign in many national polls. But a key voting bloc still seems to be saying no to Romney in large numbers. According to a Pew Research poll from earlier this month, Hispanic voters favor President Obama over Mitt Romney by some 40 points: 67 percent to 27 percent.

And those votes could be crucial in swing states like Colorado, Florida and New Mexico. So why the big gap? And will there be a real competition for Latino voters? We decided to call upon two of our trusted political commentators. Maria Teresa Kumar is the president of Voto Latino. That's a non-partisan group that encourages Latinos to get involved in the political process.

Also with us, Rueben Navarrette. He's a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a contributor to CNN.com, and a frequent guest in our Barbershop roundtable. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

MARIA TERESA KUMAR: Thanks for having me, Michel.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So Ruben, let's start with why Mitt Romney is struggling with Latino voters.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: We spoke with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last week and we were talking about immigration reform and, as of course you know, he's a significant figure in politics, a prominent Latino Republican. And this is some of what he told us about why the GOP seems to be losing out with Latino voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALBERTO GONZALES: I personally have been disappointed in the way that the party's leaders have talked about immigration. And it's not just, Michel, the message. It is the tone of the message. It's mean. It's mean-spirited. I think it's a turn-off.

MARTIN: Ruben, do you agree with that?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah, I agree with that, but I'd take it further. I'd say, listen, the Republican treatment of immigration isn't just mean - it's dishonest - that one of the narratives that Mitt Romney chiefly advanced during the presidential primary was that immigrants come here, illegal immigrants come here to take.

They come here to take things like lower tuition in the state of Texas, when he was attacking Governor Perry. But they actually come here to give and contribute and they make a great contribution. And they wouldn't be here in the first place if Americans weren't hiring them.

You know, there's so many different ways in which the Romney narrative and the Republican narrative is fundamentally dishonest. So that's very much a part of it. But the other side of that coin is that President Obama also has a problem. Even though his numbers look very good with Latinos, there's been this very interesting finding in polls recently that said that even though a majority of Latinos support, and personally like, President Obama, not very many of them intend to show up and vote for him.

And so the real issue and debate is really over turnout. Nobody is saying - nobody credible is saying that the majority of Latinos are going to come out and vote for Mitt Romney, but there is great worry at the White House that Latinos are so disillusioned with Obama they won't vote at all.

MARTIN: And let's talk to Maria Teresa Kumar about that, because, you know, voter turnout in kind of - and participation is your kind of daily task. It is your daily task. What do you make of Ruben's point? Do you think that's true?

KUMAR: I think that's true to the extent that not only is there an enthusiasm gap at the local level with Latinos, but even the folks that may go to the polls are going to have a harder time in several states because of increased voter ID laws. And that is actually the biggest specter right now that no one's talking about.

There are 11 states, Michel, that have passed tough voter ID laws that are responsible for two-thirds of the electoral vote. They include Florida. They include Texas. They include Nevada, Arizona. I mean I'm lining them up and they're all swing states.

And so it's a matter of how do you start talking to the Latino voter as candidates that talk about the issues they care about, they start changing the tone of immigration, because it's very much the tone that is really impacting Latinos. But also, how do you start talking to them at the end of the day as voters and not basically silo-ing them off as non-American?

MARTIN: Ruben, I want to pick up on something you mentioned earlier. You said that polls show that many Latinos like President Obama...

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're motivated to vote for him. Let's talk about the Republican side. When you talk about the tone of the debate...

NAVARRETTE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...and why that's a turn-off for Latino voters, is it Mitt Romney who is deemed responsible for that or is there kind of a broader turn-off of the Republican brand among Latino voters in your assessment?

NAVARRETTE: There's definitely both. The Republican brand, the GOP brand, is toxic with Latinos for good reason. A lot of Republicans at the local and state level and the national level have done a very good job of making that brand toxic. People at the federal level like Representative Lamar Smith, who I have tangled with many a time, a Republican from Texas - they see this issue much differently than many Latinos see the issue. And it's not a question of Latinos not taking border security seriously. We do. We, in many cases, support deportation policies as long as they're done evenly and honestly and not deceptively.

So understand the debate, the parameters. Mitt Romney has made things worse because the same sort of un-likeability that has been - and the un-relatability that has plagued Mitt Romney with regard to mainstream voters specifically plagues him with Latino voters.

Not can they not relate to the man, but they also feel like somehow he doesn't really understand us. Now, again, the other side of that coin is there's a beat going on in the Latino community and it seems like Obama doesn't really hear the beat. He speaks to Latino groups and there's often this kind of disconnect. They like him but they can't get away from the fact that he is a horrible president on immigration.

He's deported over 1.2 million people, divided hundreds of thousands of families, and then come forward through his administration, lied about it, told blatant lies about it and tried to disown it. So both political parties, I think it's fair to say, have done a horrible job on immigration with regard to the Latino community, and that's why those communities are pretty disillusioned at the moment.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and Maria Teresa Kumar, president of the organization Voto Latino, which encourages voter participation among Latinos. And we're talking about what it could take for presidential candidates to win that very important Latino vote this fall. OK. So Ruben, you were saying...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...that Mitt Romney is not terribly well liked among Latinos and he's hurt himself. Could he help himself with his choice of a running mate? And of course the name Marco Rubio...

NAVARRETTE: Well...

MARTIN: ...the junior senator from Florida is being...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...much talked about, who's now introduced something called the Republican Dream Act...

NAVARRETTE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...which would offer a fairly narrow path to citizenship.

KUMAR: But he hasn't introduced it. And nothing's on paper.

MARTIN: Nothing's on paper. Right.

KUMAR: Right...

MARTIN: So I want to ask each of you this, but let's talk about - Mitt Romney appeared with him recently in Pennsylvania and Marco Rubio sounded like he was in full campaign mode. Let's play a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: He's no longer a theory. Barack Obama is a reality. And for millions of Americans today, life is worse than it was three years ago because he doesn't know what he's doing.

MARTIN: So Ruben, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in the rest of our conversation actually suggested that Marco Rubio is not a good choice as a running mate because he simply doesn't have the experience to be considered credible...

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...as ready on day one should something happen.

NAVARRETTE: Sure.

MARTIN: And I want to know your assessment of that.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I was going to joke that I feel that way about Mitt Romney sometimes.

So I think that - I think that...

KUMAR: Ruben, you said that out loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I mean Maria knows - she reads my stuff. I'm not getting invited to parties at either party. You know, I mean somebody's got to say this straight up and I think that the Rubio question - I've been writing about Marco Rubio - I think I've written eight pieces about him in the last year and a half, most of them advancing this notion that he would do more harm than good.

Because Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, for instance, who make up a huge portion of the Latino community and the Latino vote, don't like him. They don't support him. They don't relate to him. And he has not done himself any favors with that. However, having said that...

MARTIN: Why is that, Ruben? Just briefly. Because he's Cuban-American?

NAVARRETTE: Well...

MARTIN: Or they just don't like the way he...

NAVARRETTE: No. It starts off with that. If you're Cuban-American, you have to understand that you have a get-to-the-United-States-free card in the form of the Cuban Adjustment Act, this relic of the Cold War that says basically if you can make it to U.S. shores, you're good to go. That is something most Mexican immigrants cannot relate to.

And so you've got to have some humility when you're Cuban and you start lecturing those of us who are Mexican about immigration because you've got a red carpet and we had to come in through the back door. That is significant already, but he makes things worse by his illogical treatment of the issue. He said he supported the Arizona law when, you know, obviously, he slept through law school.

NAVARRETTE: There are problems, I think, with Rubio's treatment of the issue. He comes off as somebody who wants - he's a freshman who wants to be liked by the upper classmen and he wants to do everything he can to be adopted and accepted by the upper class Republicans and that gives Latinos a really bad feel.

MARTIN: Maria Teresa, obviously, your group is nonpartisan, so I'm not asking you to assess the candidates, but I did want to ask just sort of in general whether the choice of somebody like Marco Rubio or - well, it has to be - there is no choice of someone like. The candidates are who they are.

KUMAR: Right. I think that - I mean, I think that some of the stuff that - what Ruben said was right, but I think it's a little step further. We're in a political bubble. Right, Michel? Ruben, we watch this every day. We're following it closely. But, if you were actually to poll the majority of Latino voters, they have - they don't have name recognition among Marco Rubio.

NAVARRETTE: Right, right.

KUMAR: So he's going to have to do a lot of branding for himself. This is the first time he's coming into the...

NAVARRETTE: Right.

KUMAR: ...national stage and I would actually watch very closely who Romney picks because what they don't want to do is make sure that they're not going to create a gimmick. Right? So the fact that, all of a sudden, he's cozying up to the Latino community through Marco Rubio is going to sound very gimmicky, given that he has strange bedfellows. The fact that he is with Kris Kobach, the architect of the Arizona laws and the other ones that encourage racial profiling, the fact that...

NAVARRETTE: Well, we don't know how much he's with Kobach. We don't know how...

KUMAR: Well, as of...

NAVARRETTE: Kobach's on the outs lately, apparently.

KUMAR: Well, he continues his narrative, though, because as of January...

NAVARRETTE: That's right.

KUMAR: ...he was. Yesterday he wasn't. Right? So...

NAVARRETTE: Right.

KUMAR: And then, at the same time, he's also in bed with the chairman of Pete Wilson as the California chairman in California with - within California, Pete Wilson is a dirty word because he was the original architect, you could actually claim.

Russell Pearce, the actual author of Arizona's law, he actually said that he supported and was an advocate for Mitt Romney, so while he's saying, yes. I'm cozying up to the Latino community through Marco Rubio...

NAVARRETTE: Right.

KUMAR: ...he's basically talking out of two sides of his mouth and saying two different things.

MARTIN: All right. I'm sorry. Ruben...

NAVARRETTE: But, you know, what Maria says is - go ahead, please.

MARTIN: Final thought from you, if you would. I wanted to ask. What is the next thing...

NAVARRETTE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...we should be looking for? I'm asking you to predict and I apologize, but what do you think is the sort of the next marker or the next significant thing we should be looking for in just kind of determining how this - how the appeal to the Latino community is going to go? Latino voters will go?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Here's the thing. For Romney, it's pivot time. He's got to somehow move off from where he's been to where he wants to go. It's going to be difficult for him to thread that needle, though, because people have memories. They understand what he said and did during the primary. He can't really turn on a dime like that.

You know, he said this morning - or he said recently - I want to unite people. Well, yeah. Guess what? You're the one who divided everybody, so sure, you want to unite everybody.

You know, but likewise, Barack Obama wants people to focus on his words and not his actions and he wants to focus on how bad Republicans have really gone on immigration and not how bad he's been.

MARTIN: Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist. He's a frequent guest in our Barbershop roundtable. He is with us from San Diego, California. Maria Teresa Kumar is president of Voto Latino, a group that works to get Latinos civically engaged. She was with us here in Washington, D.C.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us once again.

KUMAR: Thank you, Michel.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, the sometimes tragic consequences of bullying have become a serious topic for parents, schools and even government officials, but in the rush to punish bullies, what part of the story are we missing and what's the cost? More on that in my weekly Can I Just Tell You essay. That's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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