Mitt Romney’s Magic Number

Mitt Romney’s campaign has identified 38% as the “magic number” of Latino voters they need to secure victory over President Obama in the November election.  This seems rather ambitious; John McCain earned 31% of the Latino vote in 2008, and Romney stands at a mere 26% ten weeks before the election. In light of the Republican National Convention and his campaign’s clearly articulated goal, I examine the viability of reaching that 38% target.

On the bright side for the Romney campaign, there is a recent case where a Republican candidate reached the precise goal his campaign seeks.  New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez won 38% of the Latino vote in her successful 2010 campaign, a higher percentage than average for a GOP state-wide candidate in that state. While encouraging for Romney’s team, there are some obvious differences between her ability to reach 38% in New Mexico and Romney’s goal of doing the same nationally. Most notably, Susana Martinez is Mexican American, born in El Paso, TX, and speaks Spanish. These personal characteristics obviously help her connect with Latino voters in a way that candidates without those qualities simply cannot. At nearly 39%, New Mexico’s electorate has the largest share of Latino voters relative to other states.  That figure is much higher (over four times higher) than the Latino share in national electorate, which amounted to 9% in 2008. These two factors – enduring ties with the Latino community and electorate demographics — make Romney’s 38% goal very challenging.

Another high-profile Latino, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, had the important task of introducing Mitt Romney on Thursday night. But he arrived at the convention with rock-star status after the summer-long buzz about his potential to be named Romney’s running mate.  In a strategic decision to highlight Latino Republican elected officials, Governor Martinez was also included on the convention bill.  She addressed a national audience in prime-time, just before Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan. Given that many folks outside of New Mexico were not familiar with her, the speech became a somewhat unexpected convention highlight. There was strong consensus that Governor Martinez did an excellent job introducing herself to a national audience by showcasing her personal story and success working with a Democratic-controlled state legislature in a state that leans Democrat. Martinez emphasized how her personal background represents the American Dream and sprinkled her speech with Spanish; both, gestures meant to resonate with Latino voters.

Rubio and Martinez will undoubtedly boost enthusiasm among Latino Republicans, but it is not likely that will be enough to get Romney within striking distance of his magic number. The potential for a “Martinez effect” would need to withstand next week’s Democratic National Convention, where Latinos will also play prominent roles (San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro will deliver the keynote address). Latino opinions in the days after the GOP convention will be a telling benchmark for the Romney campaign. If Romney does not approach 38% after a full week of positive RNC buzz and highly-visible Latino presence in the week’s events, I do not believe it will be possible for him to reach the 38% threshold in the general election.

Beyond these symbolic outreach efforts, some may wonder if Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Congressmen Paul Ryan, will get the ticket closer to 38%. Our data suggests this is unlikely. The most salient policy discussion to emerge following the Ryan announcement has revolved around Medicare, the government health insurance program for the elderly. Our October 2011 impreMedia/Latino Decisions tracking poll found a strong majority of Latino voters opposed cutting Medicare to balance the national deficit, including 70% of Latino Republicans.  This does not bode well for a strategy that charges Ryan with making up ground with Latino voters.

Romney’s team has determined they must come up with 38% of the Latino vote to secure victory in November.  A more careful examination of Latino voter demographics and policy preferences explains why 38% may be too far out of reach.

Gabriel R. Sanchez is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico and Director of Research for Latino Decisions.