GOP strategist: Appeal to Latino voters is party's 'great challenge'

A new Fox poll of Latino voters shows a heavy preference for Democrats. To remain competitive, says GOP strategist Whit Ayres, Republicans must improve their appeal to Latinos and Asians.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Whit Ayres, President of North Star Opinion Research speaks at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, March 8.

Republican Party strategist Whit Ayres says a new Fox News poll showing a strong preference for Democrats among Latino voters underscores what he called “the great challenge of the Republican Party going forward” – doing better with non-white voters, especially Latinos and Asians.

“We will do better, in part because we are not stupid. We can count,” Ayres said Thursday at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters. “And it is pretty obvious that we can’t continue to lose Latinos two to one as we did in 2008 and remain competitive as a national party. If we don’t do better among Latinos, we are not going to be talking about how to get back Florida in the presidential race, we are going to be talking about how not to lose Texas.”

While Florida is a swing state and went for George Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008, Texas has been solidly Republican and last voted for a Democrat in a presidential election in 1976.

Ayres is president of North Star Opinion Research, which provides research and strategic advice to companies and Republican candidates. He also is the current chair of the American Association of Political Consultants. Ayres is co-founder of Resurgent Republic, a Republican organization that seeks to influence public opinion about the proper role of government. 

The Fox News poll of 1,200 Latino voters underscores the Republican Party’s problems with the fast growing block of voters. The survey found that 60 percent of likely Latino voters believe that the Democrats will help them achieve the American Dream, while only 10 percent thought the Republican Party would do so. The survey, released Wednesday, found that likely Latino voters favor President Obama by six-to-one over any of the Republican presidential hopefuls. The poll found no Republican candidate garnering more than 14 percent of the Latino vote in a head-to-head match up with Mr. Obama.

“The immigration debate and the tone of some people in discussing it hurt the Republican Party,” Ayres said. “I don’t think there is any way you can deny that. On the other hand there are clear sources of opportunity and there are clear examples of doing better.” He cited George W. Bush’s success with Latino voters in 2004 and the appeal of rising Republican stars like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a client of Ayres’ consulting firm. 

Ayres was asked about former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s ability to appeal to Hispanic voters after calling for “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants during Republican primary debates. “There is no reason to believe he is going to change his fundamental position that we’ve got to control the border. Latinos believe we should control the border,” Ayres said.

The strategist argued that Republican candidates, like Romney, could improve their standing with Hispanic voters by paying more careful attention to tone.

"An awful lot of the discussion about immigration involves tone,” Ayres said. “You cannot come across as someone who doesn’t care about the concerns of Latinos. There is no unanimity in the Hispanic community about what exactly should be done about immigration. But there is certainly unanimity that they don’t want someone who acts like they don’t care about the votes and support of Latinos.”

Economic issues will help Romney with Hispanics, Ayres argued. Romney's self-deportation comments are "not quickly forgotten, particularly in the Latino community, but the number one issue in the Latino community is the economy and jobs, it is not immigration," he said.

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