Key demographics of the 2012 campaign: youth, women and Hispanics

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sees GOP opportunities in areas where Democrats claim an advantage

May 12, 2012|Robert L. Ehrlich Jr

Campaign 2012 is now joined. The darts heretofore traded between the Obama and Romney camps now have extra-sharp tips. And it's going to stay this way through to Nov. 2. Most pundits predict a "razor close" and "particularly ugly" campaign. I concur.

So, which storyline is a political junkie to follow in light of the 24/7 coverage given to this race for the ages? Which subplot is most instructive with regard to the ultimate outcome?

A few thoughts for your consideration:

•Youth. Young voters were a key part of the Obama constituency circa 2008, but far less so today. It's difficult under any circumstances to maintain a rock star status with any age group, let alone one (traditionally) least apt to show up at the polls. Four years of high unemployment have not helped in this regard. "Hope" and "change" have proved to be all of the former and none of the latter. Today, 54 percent of college graduates (many facing repayment of staggering student loans) are underemployed or unemployed. Still, the president's telegenic charm, youthful persona and feckless charges of an alleged GOP plan to cut college scholarships present a significant challenge to the perceived "not-so-cool" Mitt Romney. The Romney campaign's response to date has been predictable, but solid: Who better understands the dynamics of private-sector job creation? Here, the unapologetic capitalist enjoys a distinct advantage over the community organizer/law professor.

•Women. The so-called war on women mantra is not new. It is a familiar indictment against the GOP and its candidates, even its female candidates. For context, recall Democratic operative Hilary Rosen's recent comment that former Governor Romney "seems so old fashioned when it comes to women … he just doesn't really see us as equal." One problem, however: The indictment plays to mixed results with so many women (particularly those who are primary breadwinners) struggling along with this tepid recovery. Further, it is a fact of political life that not all women are pro-choice, liberal Democrats. Again, an opening for Mr. Romney to charge the president with an economy that cannot find its job-producing mojo. An unemployment rate in excess of 8 percent for 37 straight months is a huge obstacle for any incumbent president.

That a prohibitively expensive, haphazardly crafted stimulus has done little to improve our economy is yet another dagger in the president's economic record. Vice PresidentJoe Biden'svarious public promises that the stimulus would solve our economic downturn will be grist for the Romney media folks.

A reminder for GOP'ers, however: The Obama campaign will continue to associate Rick Santorum's views on contraception with those of Mitt Romney. Do not allow the national debate to slip away from economic issues. Do not fall into the contraception trap. It will be the Romney campaign's fault if the tactic succeeds.

•Hispanics. This Democratic-leaning constituency is a growing economic and political force — but this description does not begin to delve into the complexities of the Hispanic vote. For one thing, the influential Cuban-American vote is decidedly pro-GOP (hence the strong support for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio for the Romney VP slot), while most other Hispanics lean Democratic.

Further, Hispanics have decidedly mixed views on immigration: Hispanic immigrants who followed the law and waited their turn to become American citizens are not so sympathetic to the cause of illegal immigration. Many believe immigration rates are too high. There is sharp division on whether illegal immigration has a positive effect on immigrants. Opinions are further tempered with the knowledge that many families are split up as a result of uneven enforcement practices.

Nevertheless, national surveys consistently reflect majority Hispanic support for the notion that immigrants should learn to speak English. A majority support making English the official language. Further, a bent toward traditional Catholicism and strong family values provides an opportunity for a Romney "values pitch" to this pivotal group.

But, like everything else this election cycle, it all comes back to the economy. Hispanic small business ownership has increased during boom times. Not so much during the Obama era. Hispanic chambers of commerce are a growing force in many communities. Entrepreneurship is a powerful goal with this group. Businessman Romney can play here, if he so chooses.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and Maryland chairman for the Romney campaign. His email is

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