Romney needs Hispanics more than they need him

Romney doesn’t grasp that playfully wishing he were Mexican-American is offensive to many Hispanics. His view of the Hispanic electorate seems simplistic and out of touch with the Latino experience. Hispanics do not vote based on ethnicity; we vote on policy.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Mitt Romney addresses the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles, Sept. 17. Op-ed contributor Raul Reyes says Romney's joke during his '47 percent' comments that 'it would be helpful to be Latino' to win the election 'shows poor taste.' He continues: 'Romney would “have a better shot of winning this” if he were running a more inclusive campaign.'

Since a secretly recorded video from a Florida fundraiser surfaced, Americans have been considering what Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments reveal about the Republican presidential nominee. Many Latinos, however, have been discussing other remarks captured on the same recording.

That May evening, the former governor of Massachusetts reminded his donors that his father had been born to Americans living in Mexico. “Had he been born of Mexican parents,” Mr. Romney said, “I’d have a better shot of winning this.” He added, “I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino.”

Romney doesn’t grasp that playfully wishing he were Mexican-American is offensive to many Hispanics. While he said he was kidding, his off-the-cuff humor is not funny considering his struggle to attract Latino voters. His view of the Hispanic electorate seems simplistic, and he is unfortunately out of touch with the Latino experience.

The notion of trading on race or ethnicity to win an election, even in jest, shows poor taste. Would it be amusing if Romney said that, if only he were African-American, he would do better against President Obama? Of course not. The standard should be no different for Hispanics.

Romney would “have a better shot of winning this” if he were running a more inclusive campaign. He turned off many potential Latino voters during the GOP primaries, when he staked out his positions on immigration. He vowed to veto the DREAM Act, called Arizona’s stringent illegal-immigration law a “model for the nation,” and championed the idea of “self-deportation.”

Although he appeared before several Hispanic groups last week and pledged to “fix the immigration system and make it work for the people of America,” he did not offer many specifics. Romney still refuses to say whether he would continue President Obama’s deferred action policy for immigrants brought here illegally as children.

Romney apparently believes that being Latino would be “helpful” to his campaign. But being Mexican-American didn’t help former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson when he ran for president in 2008. He never clicked with Hispanics or any significant number of voters; he dropped out of the race after the New Hampshire primary.

The fact is, Hispanics do not vote based on ethnicity; we vote on policy. Just look at Republican Governors Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico. Although they were both elected in 2010 in states with sizable Hispanic populations, they won without a majority of Latino support. In both cases, most Hispanics voted for the non-Hispanic candidate, because their positions were more in sync with their own. 

It is disappointing that Romney thinks being Hispanic would smooth his path to the White House, because it shows he doesn’t recognize our social and economic realities. Consider what his life might have been like if he were born Latino.

For starters, it is unlikely that Romney would have grown up wealthy and attended elite schools. Studies by the Pew Hispanic Center have shown that Hispanics are more likely than other Americans to live below the poverty line and to attend poorly performing public schools.

If Romney were Latino, he might well be worrying about deportation. A 2010 Pew study found that 52 percent of Hispanics say they worry “a lot” or “some” that they, a family member, or a close friend could be deported. He’d also be more likely to be unemployed, because the Latino unemployment rate is 2 points higher than the national average.

Herein lies the most ironic aspect of Romney’s joshing about wanting to be Latino: If he were, he might find himself among that “47 percent” of Americans whom he disparages for relying on social services or government assistance. 

On the leaked video, Romney acknowledges that the GOP needs to win over more Latinos. “If the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African-American voting bloc has in the past,” he says, “why, we’re in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.”

This view fails to see that there is no monolithic Latino voting bloc. The fact that Latinos currently favor President Obama by wide margins is not because we vote en masse; it is because today’s Republican Party is simply not attractive to most Hispanics.

Romney is a decent man who has known great success and great privilege. Yet wishing he were Hispanic to win the presidency bespeaks an unpleasant opportunism. It is hardly admirable, let alone presidential. He would do well to show more sensitivity to the Latino community. Right now, he needs us more than we need him – and that’s no joke.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.

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