Nevada's Hispanic voters are continuing to flock to President Barack Obama's camp while Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Shelley Berkley is still struggling to muster the same levels of support among the demographic, a new poll indicates.
Nevada has just six electoral votes, but one look at the presidential contenders' travel itineraries of the past few months shows just how important the Silver State is to the candidates.
Obama this week visited Nevada for the ninth time this year, and Romney has campaigned in Nevada 16 times in two years, six since becoming the Republican Party's presumptive nominee.
The Hispanic vote, 14 percent of the Nevada electorate, will be crucial in the competitive races. On Thursday, polling firm Latino Decisions released the results of a Sept. 15-21 poll of 400 registered Hispanic voters in Nevada.
Obama had the support of 78 percent of those polled, up 9 points since June. Romney's support among Hispanic voters fell from 20 percent to 17 percent, and 5 percent of respondents in September still were undecided.
Meanwhile, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., whom Berkley is attempting to unseat, is doing much better than the top of the ticket among the state's Hispanic voters.
In June, the poll showed Berkley with 53 percent of the vote from Hispanics to Heller's 30 percent. Berkley managed a more modest gain than the president from June to September, raising her support among Hispanic voters to 58 percent.
So, what accounts for the difference between the two Republicans? After all, they do not differ much on economic policy or immigration, the two most important issues among Nevada's Hispanic voters, according to the poll.
For starters, Heller did not have to go through a GOP primary, where rhetoric on immigration tends to take on a more restrictionist tone.
"The broader issue for Republicans is that in the primaries they get dragged so far right on these issues (of immigration)," said UNLV political scientist David Damore, who was part of a forum Wednesday at the university analyzing the poll results. "That's all they care about, and they're not thinking about what comes next."
Yet, the panel, which also included Democratic consultant Andres Ramirez; Mi Familia Vota Nevada State Director Leo Murrieta; and Astrid Silva, head of the pro-Dream Act organization Dream Big Vegas, thought advertising was the difference-maker.
A report released this week by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce showed that in 10 states, including Nevada, just 4 percent of all campaign ad dollars went to Spanish-language media. In general, Democrats spend a greater percentage of their ad money on Spanish-language media than Republicans, but neither party's expenditures on Spanish-language ads is proportional to the Hispanic portion of the electorate, 8 percent nationally.
Heller has bucked that trend. Heller has accounted for 55 percent of all Senate race ads on Nevada Spanish-language television.
"The Republicans haven't outspent Democrats on Spanish-language advertising anywhere but this one outlier (the Heller/Berkley race)," Ramirez said. "Look at what Obama is doing. He is way outspending his opponent on television. Berkley is heavily outspent and also hurting the most. She is behind on name identification and being out-invested in the community."
Damore said Berkley still could eat into Heller's support among Hispanic voters. Berkley is not enjoying as much support as Obama from within the party (polls show Obama with 95 percent of Hispanic Nevada Democrats to Berkley's 71 percent), nor among Hispanic males (Obama has 70 percent to Berkley's 54 percent).
On Nevada Spanish-language television, Obama ads outnumber Romney ads almost 2 to 1.
The Romney campaign, spokesman Darren Littell said, is focused more on its ground game.
"Our strategy for outreach to Hispanic voters is to focus on the door-to-door and face-to-face voter contact," Littell said. "A lot of Nevada's Latino community does not know Mitt Romney as well as other candidates. Rather than an investment in television or radio, we've decided to make an investment in personal contact.
Last week, the Romney campaign opened a new office in east Las Vegas that was billed as the local headquarters for Hispanic outreach. That office brings the total Romney offices in Nevada to 12, Littell said, while there are 27 Obama offices in the state, according to the campaign.
Littell also said the Romney campaign was swimming upstream to make up for previous election cycles in which Republicans failed to reach out to Hispanics.
"The Republican Party has not traditionally done well with Hispanic outreach, but we can't change the past," Littell said. "We can change the future and make a serious effort. We are serious about it and we are still serious about it. ... We have bilingual phone banks and bilingual mailing packets; that's never been done before in Nevada as Republicans."
With one month to go until Election Day, trends certainly can shift in both the presidential and Senate races. The Latino Decisions poll was conducted just as video of Romney disparaging the "47 percent" for not accepting personal responsibility was leaked.
While Republicans are doing more to address Hispanic voters, U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., who was in town this week supporting both Obama and Berkley, said Democrats would continue their efforts.
"I hope Democrats continue to make investments to reach all voters, but more and more, it's become clear that Latino voters could ultimately be the deciding vote in who becomes president," Becerra said. "So we're doing everything we can to make sure we reach out to all voters, including Latino voters, whether it's through television, radio, print or door-to door."
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