Still, Romney does twice as well among second-generation Latinos compared with immigrants. Among immigrant voters, just 18 percent support Romney. That number rises to 22 percent among the children of at least one immigrant parent and to 35 percent among Hispanics whose families have been in the U.S. for two generations or more.
Democratic pollster Margie Omero says she heard threads of "generational movement and shift" in a focus group of Hispanic women in Las Vegas this month that she helped run with Republican pollster Alex Bratty. The session was part of a series sponsored by Wal-Mart on middle-income women seen as swing voters and dubbed "Wal-Mart Moms."
"They talked about what their parents went through and how different that was from what they were going through, and their children," she says. "That's what we've seen with immigrant communities over our history. Each generation faces a different type of struggle, a different kind of interaction with the American community."
Obama pollster Joel Benenson cautions, though, that what he calls a "damaged" relationship between the GOP and many Hispanic voters at a time Latino political power is rising will make those negative attitudes hard to reshape, even decades from now.
"What's the defining dynamic politically at the point at which you become engaged in voting and politics?" he asks. "We've gone through people who came in through the anti-war movement or the women's movement or the civil rights movement in the late '60s, early '70s. You had Reagan Democrats who were in the early formative years of their politics when they voted for Reagan in the '80s. Those things that are really vibrant at the time you come into the political system can shape your thinking for a long time."
A growing advantage
Whatever the long-term prospects for the GOP, in this election year Obama is solidifying the big gains he scored among Hispanics in 2008. Surveys of voters as they left polling places then found that 67 percent of Latinos voted for him, up by double digits from Democrat John Kerry's share four years earlier and about the same level of support he has now.
That advantage is increasingly powerful. An analysis of U.S. Census data by Mark Lopez of the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center shows that the proportion of Latino eligible voters grew from 2008 to 2010 in seven of the 12 battleground states likely to determine November's outcome -- potentially a critical margin in a close election.
Meanwhile, the Republican share of the Latino vote continues to erode, from 44 percent for George W. Bush in 2004 to 31 percent for John McCain in 2008 to 25 percent in the survey for Romney. "We've seen a sharp drop-off between 2004 and 2008," acknowledges Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser and former Republican Party national chairman. "It was a factor, obviously, in the margin of President Obama's win. We do need to do better with Hispanic voters, and I think we can."
GOP strategist Leslie Sanchez estimates Romney needs the votes of 35 percent of Latinos to be competitive in November.
A senior Obama campaign official who was willing to speak about strategy only on condition of anonymity puts the bar higher in some key states. He calculates Romney needs to get a bit more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to win the battlegrounds of Florida and Nevada, where Latinos make up a significant share of the electorate.
Harsh rhetoric and hard-line policies toward illegal immigrants have soured many Latinos toward the GOP, even those who aren't particularly concerned about immigration for themselves and their families. "It's the lens by which Hispanic voters view the Republican Party," says Sanchez, author of Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other. "It's the tinted lens."
In the roundtable discussion in Las Vegas, nine Latinas talked about their lives, their families and the election. The focus group was streamed live to a small group of reporters in Washington, D.C. They saw their votes as mattering: "We're a community, and we want our voice to be heard," Karla Luarte, the mother of three, said as heads nodded around the table.
Six of the women had voted for Obama in 2008, but several expressed disappointment in him now. Some have seen family members struggle to find a job; others have had trouble holding on to their houses. They note he has failed to enact the comprehensive immigration legislation he promised during the 2008 campaign.
They didn't know much about Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, though his business experience impressed some. The aspirational message of the American dream, which is what many Republicans say they offer, struck a chord as they talked about their hopes for their children.
Still, asked which candidate they trusted more on immigration, eight hands went up for Obama and one for Romney.
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