Why Mitt's 'Mexican-American' Complex Matters in Florida
It’s every reporter’s dream to ask a presidential candidate a question that packs multidimensional dynamite. Univision’s Jorge Ramos had that opportunity yesterday when he asked Mitt Romney if he considered his own self a “Mexican-American,” since his father, George Romney, was born in that country.
Romney sheepishly allowed as how he didn’t think that sort of self-identification would be terribly credible. But it was a tricky question nonetheless, not only because Romney is frantically prospecting for Hispanic voters in Florida right now, but also because it served as a reminder that Mitt’s great-grandparents were polygamists who fled to Mexico (reportedly at the instruction of none other than Brigham Young) shortly before the LDS church officially renounced plural marriage, and the new state of Utah banned it altogether.
Turns out Mitt still has some distant cousins in Mexico, although most of those early Mormon immigrants to that country (including George and his parents and grandparents) fled during the Mexican Revolution of 1912 and never came back.
So it’s not surprising Mitt turned down the chance to claim his own little bit of Hispanic heritage.
Polygamy aside, Ramos’ question was probably as welcome to the candidate as a basket of vipers. It’s hard enough for pols to navigate the treacherous waters of Florida’s various Hispanic groups, including the Cuban-Americans who tend to participate in large numbers in Republican primaries, and people (and their children and grand-children) from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean who now outweigh them as factors in Florida general elections, which the eventual GOP nominee badly needs to win.
More to the immediate point, Romney is in danger of paying a price for the rightward tilt on immigration policy that he so usefully deployed to crush Rick Perry earlier in this cycle, and also to buttress his shaky movement-conservative street cred. As a new Latino Decisions poll for Univision illustrates, Romney’s ability to win the Florida primary depends heavily on relatively favorable opinions of him among Hispanics in the state. But Newt Gingrich is pounding away at that support, drawing particular attention to Mitt’s praise for strategies to encourage “self-deportation” of undocumented workers. Meanwhile, none of the GOP candidates are looking particularly strong among Florida Hispanic voters in trial heats against Barack Obama (Latino Decisions has the President beating Romney 50-40 in FL and 67-25 nationally, and beating Gingrich 52-38 in FL and 70-22 nationally).
So Romney needs to tread lightly on Hispanic attitudes in the run-up to next Tuesday’s primary, and also keep the focus off those cousins in Mexico and how they got there.
UPDATE: A commenter pointed out that my inclusion of Puerto Ricans as “immigrants” in a list of Hispanic-American groups is inaccurate, since Puerto Ricans are American citizens by birth. That’s entirely correct. So I changed the noun describing the entire list from “immigrants” to “people,” which is probably a good habit anyway.
At the risk of conveying the impression I read every single comment on every single post (can’t quite square that with Benen-like productivity, folks!), I’ll note another commenter asked if Cuban-Americans considered themselves “Latinos” rather than “Hispanics.” This is a very tangled subject. By-and-large, the term “Hispanic” is more common in the East and “Latinos” in the West, so that’s generally how I use the terms unless there is some specific reason to do otherwise.
And finally, while I’m at it, I will report once and for all that the whole issue of CAPTCHA is simply above my pay grade. I’m pretty sure management knows how you feel about it, though.