Can Obama, Republicans Connect With Latino Voters?

President Obama is starting a bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia, where he's going to promote his jobs plan and try sparking the energy that helped him win those states in 2008. Also, as GOP hopefuls prepare to debate Tuesday, a new national poll of prospective Latino voters shows 21 percent support for GOP front-runner Herman Cain — compared to 64 percent for Obama. Michel Martin talks politics with Washington Post National Political Reporter Nia-Malika and Latino Decisions Pollster Matt Barreto.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up today at TELL ME MORE we are going to begin our weeklong series on aging and the end of life. We'll talk about how families and our country are facing the challenges of healthcare, financial security, and faith as individuals enter the sunset of their lives. We'll bring you our first installment on the soaring cost of care. That's in just a few minutes, but first we want to look ahead to the top political stories of the week.

President Obama hits the road today on a three-day bus tour through two southern states he carried narrowly in the 2008 election: Virginia and North Carolina. He'll be touting his jobs plan and trying to reignite the energy that helped him win in those states. And we'll catch up on the news about the Republican presidential hopefuls. Herman Cain has surged in recent weeks to become the GOP frontrunner in some national polls. We'll preview the next Republican debate scheduled for tomorrow in Las Vegas and we'll talk about whether any of these candidates can connect with Latino voters ,who are a force in Nevada and elsewhere.

Joining us to talk about these stories are Nia-Malika Henderson. She's covering the 2012 presidential campaign for the Washington Post. Also with us, Matt Barreto. He's a pollster with Latino decisions. He's also an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington. Welcome back to you both. Glad to talk to you again.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON: Great to be here.

MATT BARRETO: It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: Okay, Nia-Malika, let's start with you. President Obama is hitting the road, starts in North Carolina today and he's working way back to the Washington area. What's the White House hope to accomplish with this tour, or is this really kind of a dry run for the campaign?

HENDERSON: Well, they obviously want to accomplish something but it's also a dry run for the campaign. You remember when Obama gave his big jobs bill introduction before Congress? He said that he was going to go to every corner of the country and sell this thing, but it turns out that every corner of the country is really select swing states. He is going to be in North Carolina and Virginia, as you said. Biden this week is going to be in Pennsylvania, another key swing state.

Their bill went down to defeat last week when Republicans blocked it and so, now they're hoping that they can gin up support to get this thing considered in pieces this week. So, we'll see - I think their real issue here isn't even so much with Republicans but it's also with these Democrats. There are 23 Senate Democrats who are going to be up for reelection in 2012 and I think a lot of them are a little skittish about going back to their states and saying that they backed a $450-billion bill.

MARTIN: So, is the idea here - I'm just still trying to understand how this is supposed to work. Is the idea that I'll take the fight to your voters so, that you don't have to? Is it that the idea that people are supposed to be excited by seeing the president and reminded of why they liked him? I'm just still not understanding how this is supposed to actually translate into support...

HENDERSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...for the jobs bill. That's what confuses me.

HENDERSON: Yeah, it's unclear because if - no, I think you're exactly right. If you look at polls it looks like a lot of people actually support this and I think Matt will be on later and talk about how much Latinos actually support this, something like 75 percent. So I think the idea is, yes, for the president to go out there. He'll be in front of a lot of crowds and a lot of folks generating some support showing some support for his plan and that's supposed to give an urge to Congress to say look, this thing is widely supported out there.

But let's be real. It also gives Obama a chance to connect or reconnect with some of those voters in these key states that are going to be so important for him come 2012.

MARTIN: Well, Matt, over to you then. Latino Decisions has a new poll out today, as Nia-Malika told us, and you ask a lot of questions. You know, like what's important to you, who do you like? Which are the contenders you like? Well, what about that? In terms of the issues that are most pressing for Latinos right now, is unemployment the top?

BARRETO: Well, that's certainly a very important issue, and we did ask a question about the jobs bill. Jobs and the economy were tied with immigration as the top two issues facing the Latino community that voters want Congress and the president to address, and those have remained top issues for about the last year sort of jostling back and forth. Following the media coverage and the bills before Congress - and specifically on that jobs bill that the president is out talking about, we found that 78 percent of Latino registered voters do support that bill.

They want Congress to pass it. We only found 12 percent said that they should block it and be opposed and try to start from scratch and so, I think there are some constituencies that do want to see action on this and it is very important for the president to try to take that message to the voters and see if they can't get some support for that and not allow the Republican party to control the messaging on this.

That's something that they have been doing a particularly bad job of is in the outreach and the campaign the Republicans have really done an effective job of controlling that media messaging and I think you're starting to see the tide turn there with the president very--very aggressive on this jobs bill.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of which how is the president doing with Latino voters? Recently there have been a lot of stories about some high profile, you know, African-American individuals, people like the public radio broadcasting personality Tavis Smiley, the Princeton professor Cornell West, criticizing the president saying that he hasn't been enough for the African-American constituencies. What about on the - among Latino voters? I think the president's argument would be well, that's fine you think that, but African-Americans on the whole, as voters, still support me, understand what I'm trying to do.

What about with Latino voters? What does your poll tell us, Matt?

BARRETO: Well, we've seen over the last few months that there has been some slippage Obama's overall job approval rating has been inching down a couple of percentage points each month, and his vote support for 2012 has been holding steady at about 49 percent who say they're certain to vote for him with another ten percent or so who are leaning in his direction. And I think that if you compare that to his 2008 levels or even how he was looking early in his administration, 2009, there has definitely been a decrease.

But when Latino voters right now look at their options, there is some disappointment with President Obama, but what we found in this new poll that we're releasing today is that the Republican contenders are just not known and not liked among Latino voters and so, while Obama is currently facing some opposition, the Republicans are not giving him much of a run when it comes to Latino voters. They are not doing that outreach. They are not getting the word out, and for many of them, Latino voters don't even know who they are.

MARTIN: Well, there's a difference between not known and not liked; which is it? Is it that they just aren't penetrating or is that there's active dislike at this point?

BARRETO: Well, for example, on one of the candidates who was supposed to be perhaps an opportunity for the Republicans to reach Latino voters, Texas Governor Rick Perry, you know, we found that 39 percent have an unfavorable opinion of him compared to only 22 percent who had a favorable opinion, but an additional 40 percent said they had never heard of him or had no opinion, and so it's very split there. With this candidate who was supposed to be perhaps their best opportunity, huge percentages don't know who he is and the percentages who do know who he is on balance have a negative approval.

MARTIN: That's yeah, a tough - that's a tough start. (Laughing)

BARRETO: And that's consistent - very consistent...

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're taking a look ahead to the week in politics with Matt Barreto. He's a pollster with the organization Latino Decisions. That's who you heard just now. He's also a political science professor. And Nia-Malika Henderson of The Washington Post, she's covering the 2012 campaign. You know, Nia, what about the - Matt was talking about connecting, okay and connecting with the constituencies and reminding them of, you know, who you are and forging that connection.

I just want to play a clip from President Obama speaking yesterday at the dedication ceremony of the Martin Luther King memorial here in Washington. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If he were alive today I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there. The businessman can enter tough negotiations with his company's union without vilifying the right to collectively bargain.

MARTIN: So, Nia as you know, the president's critics from the left have been saying that they feel that he's governed too much from the center to this point. Do you see speeches like this as making a turn back toward these core constituencies? And just to remind people of their, you know, why, you know, 16 percent unemployment for African-Americans, 11 percent for Latinos. That's higher than the general population, and in obviously some communities and specific groups it's even higher than that.

MARTIN: How do you interpret these remarks?

HENDERSON: Well, when the president came out, you had that crowd, 10,000 people or more, even - than that - chanting four more years. So this is certainly his base and in some ways it does look like he's going for that base strategy, which was Bush's strategy in 2004. He ended up winning that campaign by about three million votes, helped in some ways with that victory from his 44 percent showing in the Latino community.

And I think you do see the president pivoting to his base, particularly with this Occupy Wall Street. In some ways, it is like trying to grab a tiger by its tail, because you don't know where this thing is going. You know, there were some reports this weekend of people fighting with the police officers, so there is a danger, but you see Obama trying to slice off a piece of this frustration and harness that and really get on the side of labor and some of these frustrations and anxiety and anger that folks have at Wall Street.

MARTIN: And Matt, final question to you. As we mentioned, the Republican candidates are set for another debate in Nevada tomorrow night. Tell us a little bit, if you would, about who needs a strong performance there in Las Vegas and why and also just how significant are a presence - are Latino voters in that part of the country?

BARRETO: Well, sure. Well, Nevada is a very, very important state for the Latino electorate. It has the fastest growing percentage of Latino voters and so Latinos will certainly be important, and I think we may see the issue of immigration come back up again. Nevada has certainly faced a lot of immigration and so I'll be looking to see how the candidates respond to that.

Clearly, Rick Perry has been really attacked from the right, from the conservatives on immigration and for his support for the Texas Dream Act.

But I'm also going to be looking to see what folks like Herman Cain come out and say about immigration. You know, he's been in the news for saying that we should electrify the border fence, an absolutely offensive comment, which he clarified and said was a joke. And now we'll see what does he say now that he's sort of come into the spotlight? Can he position himself with Latino voters at all? Right now, we're showing that over 70 percent have no opinion of Herman Cain.

So this is a chance for the candidates to clarify their positions and perhaps start some of that outreach. Latinos are a very, very important electorate in Nevada.

MARTIN: Final question, Matt. What about Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts? Is he sort of seen by - as the de facto front runner by, you know, the money people, the so-called establishment? I don't know who that is anymore, but what about him? What does he need to do?

BARRETO: Yeah. We haven't talked much about Mitt Romney and he still is a very strong candidate here. I think he ultimately is the front runner. Latinos are split on Mitt Romney and, surprisingly, there are still a large percentage who don't know enough about him, considering that he has run before.

But Mitt Romney needs to also clarify his position on these issues important to Latinos. He was much more moderate on the issue of immigration, but through the past four years in this constant campaign he's been involved in in running for president, he's really staked out a position that is on the right and that is conservative and it's going to be very difficult for him to now pivot and appease the folks in the primary, but also try to reach out to Latinos.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Well, we'll be watching. Matt Barreto is a pollster with Latino Decisions. He's also an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington. He was kind enough to join us from his home office in Seattle.

Nia-Malika Henderson is a national political reporter for The Washington Post. She was with us from their studios there. Thank you both.

HENDERSON: Thank you.

BARRETO: Sure thing.

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