Behind the Numbers

La Gran Problema

The GOP trouble with courting Hispanics is bigger than ever.

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Four years ago in Iowa, Republican caucus-goers chose illegal immigration as the most important issue facing the country. The issue of how to deal with over 10 million unauthorized immigrants is not yet playing a cerntral role in the 2012 GOP race, but fresh numbers from the Pew Hispanic Center reveal that Republicans have made little progress since 2008 in courting a fast-growing Hispanic voting bloc, two-thirds of whom voted for Barack Obama last time around.

In their basic political party identification -- the continental plates of American politics -- 67 percent of Hispanics identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, compared with 20 percent who lean toward Republicans. The 47-point Democratic advantage is larger than at any point in more than a decade of polls, including 2008, when 26 percent of Hispanics sided with the Republican Party. As we noted in the Washington Post yesterday, Obama leads Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney by a 68 percent to 23 percent margin among Hispanic voters in a hypothetical general election match-up.

The stakes for Republicans to increase their share of the Hispanic vote are high. The percentage of whites in the electorate dropped from 89 percent in 1972 to 74 percent in 2008, but John McCain received 90 percent of his support from whites. With more than eight in 10 black voters supporting the Democratic nominee in every recent election, Hispanic voters are key to expanding Republican support among the growing non-white population.

In both size and rate it's an extremely significant sector: The Hispanic population grew from 35 to 50 million in the past ten years according to census data, four times the pace of the overall public. Today, about one in six Americans of all ages is Hispanic. Hispanics made up more than four in ten New Mexico voters in 2008 and may count for more than one in six voters in Florida, Arizona, and Nevada in 2012 according to Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, all swing states that could play a decisive role. 

Potential inroads

Despite Republicans losing the Hispanic vote in every presidential election going back to 1972, Hispanic views on abortion, religion, immigrant deportations, and jobs offer potential avenues to winning Republicans support. Hispanics express greater opposition to abortion than the public overall, and over six in 10 say religion is very important in their lives, compared with about half of all those who lean Democratic and just over four in ten white Democrats.

Heightened unemployment among Hispanics -- over 11 percent in recent government data -- also might be a point of weakness for Obama. Nearly all Hispanic voters in the Pew poll said jobs are an important issue to them in the 2012 election, with half calling it "extremely important."

Obama's record high deportation rates have also spurned Hispanics. Nearly six in ten Hispanics in the new Pew survey disapprove of Obama's handling of immigrant deportations. Even so, no Republican candidates have called for fewer deportations, and Mitt Romney's heated rhetoric on illegal immigration has gained wide attention in the Hispanic media, which could weaken appeals in a general election.

While most Hispanics say stricter border security and enforcement of current laws are important in dealing with illegal immigration, about nine in ten support allowing young adults who were brought to the U.S. illegally to become legal residents if they go to college or serve a term in the military.

Delayed impact

The wide Democratic advantage among Hispanics may help Obama in 2012, but much of their electoral clout has yet to be realized, due both to lower eligibility and turnout rates. Only two in three adult Hispanics are eligible to vote, compared with over nine in ten of all Americans. Even among those who are eligible, a mere 50 percent cast a ballot in 2008, compared with 65 percent of blacks and 66 percent of whites. As a result, the share of Hispanic voters in the electorate is increasing at a slower rate than the size of the Hispanic population overall.

Behind the Numbers

Fear Factor

Are Republican voters as concerned about Iran and radical Islam as their candidates?

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

The remaining Republican presidential hopefuls clashed fiercely over Iran's nuclear ambitions in the final debate, on Dec. 15, before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, with Ron Paul clearly staking out a position of nonintervention at odds with the others. By some measures, though, both sides are out of step with GOP voters on the issue.

Republican voters also appear to lack an appetite for engaging Iran militarily at the moment, at least while diplomacy is an alternative.

Americans are not fond of Iran. Half the public sees Iran as an enemy, a number that peaked among Republicans in a national CNN/ORC International poll this spring. Nearly seven in 10 Republicans called Iran's nuclear efforts a very serious threat to national security in a Quinnipiac University poll, and a similar percentage rated sanctions against the country as ineffective. Half of Republicans in that poll backed military action to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and nearly two in three supported such action if sanctions were unsuccessful.

But Paul's preference for diplomacy is also shared by many Republicans. More than six in 10 picked "economic and diplomatic efforts" as the best Iran policy right now, according to a November CNN/ORC survey; fewer than one in four chose military action. Paul's call for eschewing sanctions in favor of free trade agreements, however, stands in stark contrast with his fellow partisans, who see Iran as a genuine threat and an enemy. Over nine in 10 Republicans in a 2010 Pew Research Center poll approved of increasing sanctions in an effort to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The schism reflects a central challenge for Paul in winning his party's nomination. In a long-standing trend tracked by the Pew Research Center most recently this spring, by nearly 2-to-1 Americans see diplomacy rather than military strength as the best way to ensure peace, but Republicans see the military as more important than diplomacy.

To reduce the deficit, Paul proposes cutting "military spending, not defense," contending that a reduced presence around the world will not weaken America's military might. Nearly four in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents (39 percent) supported reducing military spending in an October Washington Post-Bloomberg poll, but more, 56 percent, were opposed.

Concern over Muslims also appears to underpin disagreements between Paul and his rivals on Iran. During Dec. 15's debate, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann argued that Iran's mission is to "extend jihad across the world and eventually to set up a worldwide caliphate. We would be fools and knaves to ignore their purpose and their plan." Paul countered that "to say all Muslims are the same.… This is dangerous talk."

Islam is a concern for many Republicans. Fully two-thirds of Republicans voiced an unfavorable view of the religion in a 2010 Washington Post-ABC News poll, compared with about half of all Americans. And Republicans split about evenly -- 43 to 44 percent -- on whether mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims.

Altogether, Republican skirmishes over Iran and military intervention generally do not seem to have benefited Paul so far. In Iowa, fully 46 percent of likely caucus-goers in an early December Post-ABC poll said Paul's opposition to U.S. military intervention was a major count against him, while fewer than half as many -- 22 percent -- said it was a major reason to back him.

Paul's opponents are sharpening their words on Paul's potential weakness. On Tuesday, Dec. 20, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich threw a jab at Paul's opposition-to-foreign-policy stance, according to the Washington Post's Peter Wallsten. "National security really matters," Gingrich responded when asked by a reporter about Paul. "Iran really matters. The fact that bad guys attacked the U.S. on 9/11 really matters. People need to take seriously when they go into the caucuses the issue of national security."

(Side note: A handy tool from the Washington Post's politics team allows you to examine what GOP candidates said in every televised debate so far.)