Hispanic Voters: Opportunity for GOP as Obama Falters?

With much speculation about Hispanics and the 2012 election, we thought it worth taking a look.  Anecdotally you hear whispers (some louder than others) about President Obama’s erosion in the Hispanic community, that Hispanics are turning against him headed into 2012.  But is it true?

In 2008, Obama received 66% of the Hispanic vote, an impressive showing that propelled him to the defeat of John McCain.  The high level of support in the Hispanic community lasted through his inaugural year in office.  As the NBC/Wall Street Journal data library demonstrates, Obama posted approval ratings of 67% in February 2009 and 72% in October of the same year.

But, Obama’s slide among Hispanics began in 2010, and continues.  Across the entire 2010 year, Obama averaged a 60% approval rating among Hispanic voters.  In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey conducted in late August, his approval rating has dipped to 57%.  And, in the latest Gallup survey, just 48% of Hispanics approve of the job Obama has done.

Even more telling are his approval numbers for his handling of the economy.  Upon entering office, 71% of Hispanics approved of his handling of the economy.  Fast forward to August 2011, his economic approval rating his dropped to 50% among Hispanic voters.

These numbers in themselves are not horribly bad.  But combined with the President’s demise among white voters, the math to get to 50% is harder for Team Obama.  As my partner Glen Bolger wrote in his post on this site: “If the GOP shaves a few points off of Obama’s 2008 percentage with Hispanics (which was 66%), that will be very costly to him.”

In fact, the August NBC/WSJ suggests Obama will have trouble getting close to the 66% share of the Hispanic vote in 2012.  Today, just 51% of Hispanic voters say they would cast their vote to re-elect Obama, while 35% would choose the Republican candidate.  Of course, the game changes when there is an actual GOP nominee, but one can start to see the prospect of the GOP shaving off a few points among Hispanics.

Does this mean that Obama and Democrats have “lost” Hispanic voters?  No.  The image rating of The Republican Party through 2011 is just 26% positive and 42% negative.  In fact, the Republican Party has done little to alter its image among Hispanics since 2009 when the image rating was 25% positive/40% negative.  The Democratic Party is still viewed considerably more favorably at 47% positive/23% negative, but even that’s a far cry from the 60% positive in February of 2009.

Encouraging for Republican Congressional candidates is the “who would you prefer control Congress” question.  In 2010 through the course of the year, Dems enjoyed an almost two to one margin (30% GOP/59% DEM or -29%) which has narrowed over two surveys this summer to 36% GOP/56% DEM (-20%).

All this suggests that yes, Obama has trouble with Hispanics that he can ill-afford, and it may have repercussions down-ballot.  Hispanic voters have not bolted en masse, but that doesn’t have to happen to tilt the balance to a Republican considering Obama’s serious problems among white voters.

Longer-term, Republicans must seize an opportunity to connect with Hispanic voters.  Obama’s loss is not necessarily the Republicans’ gain.  Republicans need to move toward systemic success as opposed to isolated victories if we are to consistently compete for the Hispanic vote.  In 2010, individual Republican candidates proved that they could win significant shares of the Hispanic vote, but the GOP has yet to change the overall brand.  Obama’s slippage with Hispanics might be enough to score some victories in 2012, but as the demographics of the country continue to shift, it will not be enough to sustain us in the years ahead.

This post does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of anyone involved in the NBC/WSJ poll, either of the two media outlets or the two talented pollsters.