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.

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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.

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

Hispanic Leadership Fund President Mario H. Lopez, a conservative who argues that immigration should be reformed partly for the sake of shrinking government, said he likes how the governor has handled himself so far.

"It certainly seems like he gets it a little more than a couple of the other candidates. Running and governing in a state like Texas, I think that's clear," he said. "The test is: Is he going to stand firm, is he going to explain his position?"

Republicans have forfeited Latino votes not by promoting border security and opposing pathways to citizenship, but by alienating Latinos with their rhetoric on those issues, Lopez told me after Election Day 2010, which saw Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle defeated in Nevada after demonizing illegal immigrants with almost unprecedented fervor. As Republicans pursue the support of immigration hardliners, the Democratic Party's gross Latino advantage has been collateral damage. Perry's DREAM Act explanation was encouraging in that regard, Lopez said.

"I think that's definitely a positive point. Unfortunately a lot of Republicans have failed to learn that lesson of separating the policy view from some of the harsh rhetoric, and then from lumping everyone in together and failing to understand what the root cause of the [illegal immigration] problem is," Lopez said.

Perry seems unwilling to make that rhetorical trade-off. As the governor of Texas, he has represented more Hispanic constituents than any other candidate in the 2012 race. Hispanics now make of 37.6 percent of Texas's population, according to the 2010 Census, and, as Erica Grieder wrote last month on this site, Perry owes some thanks to immigrants for Texas's economic health -- thanks he offers publicly. And as he calmly offered welcoming phrases to a growing minority population, the Texas governor appeared more viable for the general election than the candidates who attacked him.

If Latinos, like other Americans, have lost confidence in Obama because of America's sagging economy, then they may look for new leadership in 2012, regardless of whether the president failed to enact comprehensive immigration reform, or whether the Texas DREAM Act included a pathway to citizenship. In a close race against Obama, an improved showing among Latinos could deliver the White House to the Republican.

The votes could be out there, and, if they are, Republicans will need someone ready to collect them. Perry might just be their man.

Image credit: Scott Audette/Reuters