How to win the hearts and minds of Hispanic voters, an expert weighs in (Q&A)

Supporters wave signs as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro speaks to the audience at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 4, 2012 on the first day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), becoming the DNC's first Hispanic keynote speaker.</p>

Supporters wave signs as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro speaks to the audience at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 4, 2012 on the first day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), becoming the DNC's first Hispanic keynote speaker.

BOSTON — The Republican and Democratic National Conventions have been exercises in pomp and circumstance.

Night after night, major players in both parties have given speeches extolling the virtues of the two men who are vying to secure the US presidency. Yet polls continue to show that in America's pivotal "battleground" states, the race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney remains in a dead heat.

Could Hispanic voters tip the balance? Deborah Schildkraut, Tufts University associate professor of political psychology and expert on ethnicity and identity, weighs in. (The interview has been condensed and edited by GlobalPost.)

GlobalPost: Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, was chosen to introduce Mitt Romney at the Republican convention. Democrats picked San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a Mexican American, as their keynote speaker. Although both men are lumped together as "Hispanic" rising stars in politics, they represent serious distinctions. How are the parties courting the Hispanic vote?

Deborah Schildkraut: Well to be honest, I don’t really see Republicans doing a ton to court the Hispanic vote, other than hoping. When you ask Latinos, 'What are the most important problems facing the country today,' they typically look like everyone in the United States. They talk about education and the economy. After 9/11, things like terrorism have been cited. But they care a lot about immigration too, and about whether they think the party is welcoming to them. 

More from GlobalPost: Julian Castro seeks to deliver Hispanic voters

I think Republicans are just hoping that [Hispanics] are going to choose the Republican message on the economy over other things. Other than highlighting Marco Rubio, I don’t think that the Republicans are doing a whole lot to specifically reach out to them. They’re banking on the hope that Latinos are going to buy into the Republican version of how to achieve the American Dream. Democrats not only want [Hispanics] to buy into their version of the American Dream, but they also want to have Latinos specifically support them on issues related to immigration. [Democrats] have pointed to how the Justice Department has contested the immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama, as well as Obama’s recent executive action and the traditional Democratic support for the DREAM Act. All those are concrete things that uniquely target this particular group — and Republicans just aren’t doing that.

Deportations of unauthorized immigrants have reached record levels under President Obama, rising to an annual average of 400,000 since 2009, according to a Pew study. That's higher than the rate during both of George W. Bush’s terms. Do you think President Obama’s track record on deportations has affected his approval numbers among Hispanics? Might it affect the number of Latinos who show up at the polls come November?

I do. I think the real issue facing Democrats is not so much the partisan breakdown among Latinos, but things like enthusiasm and turnout. And I think that [Obama's] actions regarding the children of undocumented immigrants will go a long way towards making up for that. But I do think that for a non-trivial segment of the Latino voting population there is a real disappointment. I don’t think that Republicans are necessarily going to win over or win back a lot of Hispanics, but the challenge for Democrats, and for Obama in particular, will be getting Latinos excited about him. [His record on] deportations has not helped him on that. So it’s really about regaining enthusiasm, excitement, and support.

How do Latinos reconcile Obama's record on deportation with his recent passing of the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals initiative? Do you think that because the initiative was passed so recently it will trump Obama’s deportation record in the minds of Hispanics?

For many I absolutely think it will. But the question is, will it be for enough of them? There will probably be a lot of Latino voters who might think, “This is great, but what took you so long?” Pew also has data showing a lot of Latinos saying that they, or someone they know, or someone in their family will get deported. And that fear is real. That speaks to the whole feeling of wanting to feel welcome. They want to feel like the party is looking out for them. So yes, for some of them, the [Deferred Action for Child Arrivals initiative] will get them enthusiastic again. Especially as the campaign unfolds and you get to debates, where surely immigration will come up, voters will actually get to juxtapose, in the same room, the two different visions. And these candidates have some seriously different visions on immigration. The deportations may be a huge black mark on Obama’s immigration record for Latino voters, but the other differences between the parties will probably be significant enough, that for a large segment of Latino voters, they’re going to not only vote for Obama, but they’re going to be enthusiastic about it. Others might vote for him and hold their nose, saying that they wish he’d done better.

In the 2008 election, Obama claimed nearly 70 percent of the Latino vote. Several polls put him at similarly favorable numbers this election cycle. How do you think 2008 will compare to 2012 in terms of the number of Latino voters at the polls?

I think mobilization across all groups is a challenge for Obama this time around. Not just among Latino voters, among young voters too. It’s not the best time in the country’s history and he’s had his four years to prove himself, so I think it’s going to be hard to get that same level of enthusiasm again. What the poll numbers are showing us is just a breakdown. If the election were held today who would you vote for? That doesn’t show you what people are donating. Are they volunteering? Are they going door to door? That kind of stuff is where the enthusiasm really matters. And I do think that will be a challenge for Obama.

According to census data, North Carolina has an estimated 100,000 registered Latino voters, though some groups say the number could be almost twice that. It's a small part of the state's roughly 6 million voters, but in an election that could hinge on razor-thin margins, many believe that a high Latino turnout could tip the scales. In "battleground" states like North Carolina, most polls show Obama and Romney in a dead heat. What role do you think the conventions and their speakers are playing in swing states? 

I don’t think we want to read too much into each single little thing — not to say that having Julian Castro as the keynote speaker at the DNC is a little thing. But elections are really about fundamentals. In a certain number of small places it’s going to be a very thin margin, so [Democrats and Republicans] will be looking for anything that could tip the balance in their favor. I don’t necessarily think that picking Castro is going to be decisive. [Democrats already] knew that they had an advantage with Latino voters. I think it’s a nice gesture, for lack of a better word. But I think it’s his policy stances and the actual substantive argument that he makes, rather than having a Latino speaker at the convention that makes a difference. I actually think it really helps Julian Castro — people now know who he is who had never heard of him before. But will it help the party tip the balance in North Carolina or Colorado? I don’t think so.

Back to that mobilization you mentioned. Can you explain why the debates are a more powerful tool for the candidates than these big, multi-day conventions, that tend to be more emotive and feel more like pep rallies? 

Well, more people watch the debates than watch the conventions. People do learn from the debates .... The Republican Convention happened right around Labor Day weekend, there was a hurricane, there were a lot of other things competing for people’s attention. During the debates, people start realizing, “Oh, there’s an election coming up, I should pay attention.” And it’s such a news story. The debates often feature things that then become used in political ads and the messages reverberate more beyond the actual debate itself. It becomes more of a news topic, and gets repeated play. So for those reasons, I think the debates are consequential. And it’s really where you have the two of them juxtaposing their views. I remember seeing an interview once with former presidents’ views on debates, on whether we put too much stock into them. And I remember Bill Clinton said that George Bush Sr. said that he hated preparing for the debates. And Bill Clinton said that he thought the debates were valuable because it really forces the candidates to figure out, “What am I standing for on these issues?” The debates give the candidates a chance to really zero in on what they believe in, and I really think that comes across. You can actually distill what the similarities or differences are between the two candidates in a way that you just don’t get in any other venue.

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