In the 25 years Maricruz MaGowan has been living in the U.S., the Maryland economist has never been able to understand why Democrats maintain such a tight grip on the nation's Hispanic vote.
"I find it very difficult to understand why it is that we don't have more Hispanics voting for Republicans," said MaGowan, 49, a native of Bolivia who is volunteering for the campaign of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. "Our values are so similar to the values of traditional families in Latin America."
Marta Saltus, whose parents fled Argentina in the 1950s, is also volunteering for Romney's campaign and is equally confused.
"We are all conservative -- socially conservative, fiscally conservative. We believe in individual responsibility; we work hard; we don't want food stamps," said Saltus, 46.
But yet, the disconnect between Republicans and Hispanic voters is one of the toughest challenges facing Romney. President Obama won the 2008 election partly because he won 67% of the Hispanic vote, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Obama is doing even better among Hispanics this time around in some polls, including a 70%-22% lead over Romney in a Latino Decisions poll released last month.
The Hispanic voting bloc is so crucial that the Republican National Committee dispatched Hispanic outreach coordinators to six swing states with the goal of winning over Hispanic voters.
That outreach was on display recently in an office suite in Arlington, Va., where Romney volunteers gathered for a day of phone calls in the heavily Democratic area. In one room, after a speech by Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, dozens of volunteers started cold-calling voters in the area. In another room in the back of the suite, other volunteers -- all bilingual -- focused on calling Hispanic voters.
Focusing their conversations squarely on the nation's still-struggling economy and a national unemployment rate of 8.3%, the volunteers were encouraged by the reception they were getting.
"We've had 42 months of unemployment over 8%. And for Hispanics, it's 2 points above that," said Luis Luna, 56, a Cuban-American who himself is unemployed, despite graduating from the University of Maryland and holding a law degree from Georgetown University. "Invariably, people will say, 'It's not working now; I think the Republicans will do a better job.'"
Polls indicate that something is still holding Hispanics back from swinging over to Romney en masse. Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, a polling firm that studies Hispanic voters, said there are several reasons.
He said Latinos and Republicans do generally agree on many social issues, but Hispanics don't place as much emphasis on them when casting their vote. Barreto said Romney is also missing the mark when talking about economic issues, with Romney pushing to cut taxes and lessen the role of government while Hispanics generally support an active government helping to create jobs.
The most obvious miscue, Barreto said, came in Romney's first Spanish-language ad this year, which declares that the former Massachusetts governor would begin dismantling Obama's health care plan on his first day in office. According to a January poll, 57% of Hispanics support the health care law.
"It's extremely good news and a positive development for the Romney campaign to be investing in Hispanic outreach, but oftentimes, they don't know what they're doing," Barreto said.
The issue of illegal immigration also becomes complicated for Romney.
GOP officials are quick to point out that immigration is not the main priority for Hispanics when casting their vote. Polls back that up: The economy is their No. 1 priority, as it is for the country as a whole. And Romney volunteers say voters want to talk more about the economy than anything else.
"They don't really bring it up, and neither do I," Saltus said.
Barreto calls immigration a "gateway issue" for Hispanic voters -- if a candidate is wrong on the issue, it's hard to listen to anything else.
"It makes it hard for the candidates to even get in the door," he said.
Romney took a hard stance on illegal immigration during the GOP primary. He called for more funding to secure the border with Mexico, pushed identity-verification laws to keep illegal immigrants out of American jobs and endorsed the idea of "self-deportation," where laws make life so hard for illegal immigrants that they choose to return to their home countries.
The issue becomes more prominent for voters who know, or are related to, an illegal immigrant. About a quarter of Hispanic voters know someone, or are related to, someone facing deportation, and more than half know an illegal immigrant, according to a Latino Decisions poll conducted last year.
Despite those numbers, Romney volunteers said the issue rarely comes up when talking with voters.
Matthew Mirliani, a 19-year-old volunteer who will start studying at Dartmouth College this fall, has been knocking on doors, making phone calls and writing op-eds on behalf of Republican candidates for months. When asked how voters respond to Romney's immigration record, the Mount Vernon teen spoke quickly.
"No one's talking about that," Mirliani said. "That's not the topic."
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