Perry and the Hispanic Vote: Why He Might Be the GOP's Best Shot in 2012

The governor has endured fierce criticism on immigration -- but his approach to Latinos could make him the most viable candidate

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Boos rained down on Rick Perry during Monday's presidential debate as he calmly explained why he signed the Texas DREAM Act, a law that grants in-state university tuition to illegal residents.

"The bottom line is it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way. No matter how you got into that state, from the standpoint of your parents brought you there or what have you. And that's what we've done in the state of Texas," the Texas governor said.

"Booooo!" the crowd responded, unmoved by his entreaties.

It was a rough night for Perry onstage in Tampa, Fla., before a predominantly tea-party crowd, at a debate co-hosted by CNN and the national conservative group Tea Party Express. His rivals badmouthed numerous points in his record, not least of which was his purported softness on illegal immigrants.

But the episode showed that Perry could offer the Republican Party its best chance to steal Latino votes from President Obama in a general election -- not just because he sits to the left of the other candidates on immigration policy, but because of his tone.

Republicans have harped on "amnesty" and deployed some heated, anti-illegal-immigrant rhetoric in recent years; Perry, when confronted on his alleged coddling of illegals, has at his disposal a few practiced lines about Latino contributions to Texas and its economy.

Despite the rough treatment Perry received over in-state tuition, Republicans would do well to nominate a White House hopeful with more liberal immigration views and more experience courting Hispanic votes.

. . .

America's Hispanic population is growing swiftly, and Hispanics' electoral significance is growing along with it. Hispanics make up 16 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 Census. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of eligible Hispanic voters grew by 23 percent, the Pew Hispanic Center reports, increasing from 17.3 million to 21.3 million nationwide.

Most of those votes went to Democrats, who enjoy a massive edge: Another Pew study, published a month before Election Day 2010, showed that 65 percent of registered Latino voters preferred Democrats, while 22 percent preferred Republicans.

It's a common misconception that the Latino vote is driven exclusively by immigration policy. Education, jobs, and health care overwhelmingly trumped education as voting issues for Hispanics in October, according to Pew:

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As the economy has lagged, Hispanics have soured on Obama along with everyone else. Hispanic unemployment sits at 11.3 percent, more than two percent higher than the national average.

Consequently, their votes may be up for grabs in 2012.

The president dominated among Latinos in 2008, collecting 67 percent of the Latino vote, according to CNN exit polls, but his Latino support has since eroded. According to a Gallup poll released last week, his approval rating among Latinos has fallen from 75 percent in early 2009 to 48 percent this month, a larger drop-off than he's suffered among black or white voters.

In 2012, Republicans can improve their overall chances simply by topping McCain's 31 percent among Latinos 2008. Perry stands a chance. In his last gubernatorial election, he too collected 31 percent of the Latino vote, according to CNN exit polls -- but, in the four-way race, Perry's Democratic opponent only collected 41 percent. If Republicans can turn a 36-point deficit into a 10-point deficit nationally in 2012, it will be a major victory for the party -- one that shouldn't be out of reach. President Bush carried 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, after all.

. . .

Getting Latino votes isn't just about policy, either on immigration or the economy. It's about rhetoric, too.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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