New York – Mitt Romney’s focus on the economy as his main talking point this campaign season echoes the concerns of Latino voters, yet a majority of them still plan to vote for Barack Obama in November, according to an exclusive Fox News Latino poll.
The poll found 48 percent of likely Latino voters think that the economy is the most important issue in deciding their vote, while only 6 percent said their vote would be decided based on the immigration issue.
Immigration came in fifth place among voters polled, compared to other issues they said they cared more about: the economy, health care (14 percent), education (11 percent) and social issues (8 percent). National security and the military came in sixth with 5 percent.
But even with Romney focusing on the economy as his main platform issue, about 60 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for the ticket of President Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden, while only 30 percent would cast their ballot for Romney and running mate U.S. Sen. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the poll found.
“Mitt Romney has left no room for doubt that he is on the wrong side of all issues of importance to Latinos and is the most extreme presidential nominee in recent history on immigration," said Gabriela Domenzain, director of Hispanic Press for the Obama-Biden campaign. "Romney’s policies would disproportionately hurt Hispanics and nothing short of a complete reversal of his positions would warrant Latinos reconsidering him as a candidate."
In polls released during the Republican primary, Obama held around 70 percent of the Latino vote, while Romney garnered only around 15 percent. Those polls, however, were conducted during a heated GOP primary season in which Romney was still fighting to win the party’s nomination.
During the primary debates, nearly all the candidates took strict positions on immigration – a move many observers said was aimed at appealing to the party’s conservative base. Most of the candidates, for instance, voiced opposition to the DREAM Act, and support for more security along the U.S.-Mexican border, Official English legislation and making E-Verify, a fingerprint database that checks for immigration status, available nationwide.
Romney stood out for having one of the most conservative positions on immigration, which many say it helped him clinch the nomination.
"As the American electorate wakes up, so will the Latino community," said Rosario Marin, the former U.S. Treasurer under President George W. Bush.
With both candidates finalizing their final battle plans as the November election looms, the Obama and Romney camps have made concerted efforts to win over Latino voters.
Obama has been heavily criticized for not fulfilling his 2008 campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform, but he scored a major coup with many Latinos in June when his administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Deferred Action halts deportation proceeding for more than 1 million young undocumented immigrants who could have qualified for the failed DREAM Act, formally the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, which Obama has supported in the past.
"It's not that all these Latinos care about immigration," said Allert Brown-Gort, the associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. "But many Latinos believe that how these politicians speak about immigration is how they feel about Latinos."
More recently in his campaign, Romney has softened his tone on immigration.
At a conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, for example, Romney – who in the past said that as president he would veto the DREAM Act should it come across his desk – said he would support a version of the legislation for undocumented immigrants who were brought as minors and who commit to serving in the military.
Romney has remained mum on the issue of Deferred Action.
"The DREAM Act hits an emotional nerve because it deals with kids," Brown-Gort said.
Romney's camp has tried to play catch up with Obama to grab the attention of Latinos, releasing a slew of television, radio and web ads directed at Spanish-speaking voters, having a heavy Latino presence at the Republican National Convention that included speeches by Florida Senator Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez as well and trying to capitalize on Romney’s son Craig – a fluent Spanish speaker who spent two years working as a Mormon missionary in Chile.
But the poll shows the GOP presidential candidate may have a good deal of work to do with Latino voters. Besides his hazy stance on the DREAM Act and Deferred Action, Romney has also alienated some Latino voters with his endorsement of Midwestern immigration hardliner Steve King and his tough-sounding tone on immigration during the GOP primary debates.
"I want to make sure that those who abide by the law and wait in line to immigrate here legally are not at a disadvantage," Romney said Monday to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "That’s why I oppose amnesty, because amnesty will make it harder, not easier to strengthen our legal immigration system. It’s also why my administration will establish an employment verification system so that every business can know whether the people it hires are legally eligible for employment"
If the poll is any indication of what will happen in November, then the Romney camp could continue to try and chip away at Obama's lead among Latino voters by stressing economy as the most important issue this campaign season.
"The economy has to be front and center," Marin said. "Latinos want jobs. That is why they come to this country...to work."
Romney’s economic plan fits in with the basic conservative model of smaller government, deregulation, open markets and free enterprise. His economic policies have focused on cutting tax expenditures – or the ways in which the government spends through giving various types of tax breaks – but he has been criticized by some economists for being too vague in his economic stimulus plan.
His running mate, Paul Ryan, proposes what some deem as a more “radical” approach that could alienate centrist voters, by eliminating much more federal spending and cutting back programs such as Medicare.
In his four years as president, Obama has struggled to jump start a struggling U.S. economy and boost job numbers, but he has had some successes, particularly with the revitalization of the Detroit auto industry and Wall Street reform.
However, Obama is still playing catch with the job losses from early in his term – his administration remains 261,000 jobs shy of breaking even and then creating new jobs - and his battle with a Republican-controlled Congress over the federal debt ceiling highlighted the ideological rigidity of both parties and the discord between the two.
"What Obama gives to Latinos is an unemployment check," Marin said. "What they want is a pay check."
The poll numbers do suggest that Obama has lost some support among Latinos since he won the presidency four years ago. In 2008, Obama took home 67 percent of the Latino vote, while Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona won only 31 percent.
Obama's current poll numbers, and even his 2008 statistics, are a far cry from what Bill Clinton garnered in 1996, when he was re-elected with 72 percent of the vote.
However, for Latinos what this election appears to come down to is who represents their interest the best. And those polled believe that is Obama.
Sixty-eight percent of those polled said that Obama would do a better job representing their views compared to 18 percent who favored Romney. On the issues of education, immigration, health care, job security and national security, the polled voters said that they favored Obama about 60 percent of the time over Romney.
"Latinos may be socially conservative, but they don't see any problems with the government stepping in to help them out," said Brown-Gort
The poll was conducted between the 11th and 13th of September among a random sample of 887 likely Latin voters. The margin of sampling error is three percentage points.
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.