Mitt Romney is on track to lose the Latino vote by a wider margin than any Republican presidential candidate in over a decade, and strategists in both parties say he may have made a bad situation worse with his selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate.
What's clear is that Romney's lagging fortunes among Hispanics are unlikely to receive any boost from choosing a vice presidential candidate who has voted in Congress against the DREAM Act and supports overhauling entitlement programs that are extremely popular among Latino voters.
The Republican ticket's dire position among Latinos has even stirred some hope among Democrats -- and apprehension among some Republicans -- that back-to-back smashing victories by President Barack Obama could move Latino voters in the Democratic column in a more durable way that could put the GOP at an electoral disadvantage for decades.
That's an alarming prospect to GOP strategists who have seen their party driven to near extinction in states like California, where strident anti-immigration voices have turned the Latino vote away from Republicans, maybe for good. Even as Republicans have succeeded in electing more prominent Latino politicians, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, they continue to lose ground in the battle for Latino voters nationally.
"There is no issue that is more alarming for the future national viability of the Republican Party than this one," said Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain's 2008 campaign. "The precipitous drop in the support levels for Republicans is alarming because it indicates that more and more Hispanics are simply disqualifying from consideration anyone with an 'R' next to their name."
Obama's lead over Romney among Hispanic voters in national polling hovers around and even above the 40 percent mark. Last month, a Latino Decisions survey showed Obama touching 70 percent of the vote and leading by 48 points. An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll conducted in late July found Obama taking 67 percent of Latinos to Romney's 23 percent. The POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll published Monday placed that lead at 62 percent to 26 percent.
In other words, Obama's commanding lead has not diminished and may be cemented in place. Univision anchor Jorge Ramos framed the Republican dilemma in a tweet after Ryan was announced as Romney's ticket mate: "?How can [Paul Ryan] attract the Hispanic vote? If Republicans don't get a third of the Latino vote they won't get the White House back."
The selection of a vice president could have been an opportunity to shake up the state of the race among Latino voters, but few in either party think Ryan is a running mate who will accomplish that goal.
Ryan has the potential to be an appealing figure for some of the culturally conservative, family- and business-oriented sectors of the electorate, including Latinos. He's a young, Catholic family man who's as free market as they come.
He's also a member of a Republican Congress that many Latinos view as a hostile entity. Latino Decisions found that by a 51-point margin, Latinos oppose cuts to Medicare -- an even wider margin than the electorate at large, according to some polls. A footnote to his career that could harm him with Cuban-Americans in particular: In 2009, Ryan expressed skepticism about the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, though he has since revised that stance.
Alfonso Aguilar, a former Bush administration official and talk-radio host who heads the conservative group American Principles, said Ryan brings no immediate upside for Romney with the Latino community.
"This is a candidate that I think you can sell and I think he can be exciting," Aguilar said. "But he doesn't bring anything in particular, like Marco Rubio would. ... Having said that, I do believe he's somebody who can engage Latinos on social issues, on the issue of entitlement reform."
If Romney wants to make headway with Latino voters in the less than three months before the election, Aguilar said he needs to engage much more directly with the Latino community -- and fast.
"Has Romney made his case on the economy? Certainly, he's criticized Obama's performance but has he really made people feel comfortable?" said Aguilar, whose group has aired ads attacking Obama's deportation record in an effort to dislodge Democratic-leaning Latinos. "[Romney] needs to meet with Hispanic evangelical pastors, sit down with them. They want to hear from him. They identify with him."
Florida Rep. David Rivera, a Republican who endorsed Romney in the GOP primaries, said he's excited about the Ryan pick but there's no question a sales job is in order.
"He's still someone that has to be introduced to the Hispanic community and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It gives us the opportunity to introduce all of the important pieces of legislation and policy areas where he's been a leader," he said. "I would hope they would have an open mind with respect to the policies that Paul Ryan has promoted during his time in Congress with respect to the budget and the economy and job creation."
Rivera -- a Cuban-American lawmaker from Miami -- said Ryan's past statements on the Cuba embargo didn't bother him: "My understanding is, notwithstanding what he may have said in the past, that he's a strong proponent of isolating the Castro regime."
Romney parried a question in Florida Monday about the all-white composition of his ticket, telling an NPR reporter in a press conference: "I think that we recognize people based on upon their values and their capacity to get America on track. And I picked the person I believe is the right individual to help me if I become president to be able to get America finally to work together in Washington, Republicans and Democrats, to solve the extraordinary problems we have."
To the most optimistic Democrats, Romney's choice of running mate points to a much starker conclusion on the Latino vote: that the Republican presidential nominee has essentially decided that he cannot make up much ground with that constituency and needs to compensate by running up his vote total with white Midwesterners and other center-right groups.
The Romney campaign and its allies reject that idea, but there's been little indication over the past few months that they are making a concerted push to prompt a reassessment from Latinos turned off by Romney's primary-season rhetoric on immigration.
He has not shifted his position on immigration in a way that could win over skeptical voters despite being urged to do just that by figures on the right as prominent as Rupert Murdoch. While Romney has run ads in Spanish, he has drawn criticism for using rough, literal translations of his English commercials -- not messages developed uniquely for the Latino community.
"The Romney campaign passing over Marco Rubio for VP could mean they think there is little they can do to win back Latino voters this year -- that the community's support for Obama is so strong that Republicans need to look elsewhere for votes," said Texas-based Democratic strategist Ed Espinoza, a former western political director of the Democratic National Committee.
The problem, Espinoza said, is that Republicans have so damaged their brand with Latinos that many voters simply rule out the GOP as an option for cultural reasons: "There's a big difference between saying 'We don't understand you' and 'We don't want to understand you.' ... [Republicans] are consistently trying to get away from the community."
Latino Decisions pollster Matt Barreto, who has conducted surveys for the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund and the group America's Voice, said it's time to ask "whether the GOP is writing off the Latino vote forever."
"Obama has done some outreach and he's a pop figure, but more of this trend we're noticing is an anti-Republican trend as opposed to a pro-Obama one. That's bad news for the Republican Party. If it was just the fact that Obama was a superhero, they could overcome that with a future candidate," Barreto said. "Another question we ask a lot -- how would you rate each party's outreach to Hispanic community -- in general we usually get less than 20 percent who say Republicans are doing a good job."
To the extent that there's good -- or at least, non-disastrous news -- for Republicans and the Latino community, it's that both Democrats and Republicans agree that Latinos remain a far more volatile voting bloc than, say, African-Americans. They are not a monolithic community, strategists caution, and it would be hard to imagine either party locking in a 40-point lead in perpetuity.
Project New America President Jill Hanauer, whose group has extensively studied the Latino vote and Democrats in the West, warned that it would be difficult to anticipate the future contours of the Latino vote -- or lock it down.
"Particularly those Latinos who have a higher propensity to vote, communicate in predominantly English at home and consume more English-language television -- it's a very complex environment to communicate with and reach different audiences and I think we're just beginning to understand it," she said. "By 2016, it's going to look very different."
Difficult, however, is not the same thing as impossible, and the scale of Obama's win with Latino voters will be a signal for Republicans -- one way or the other -- about the severity of their challenge with the group.
Jennifer Korn, who heads the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network, said she believed Romney could move the Latino vote in his direction by 10 points or so and get as high as 35 percent or 40 percent of the vote. But that would depend on much more aggressive engagement with Latino voters on the issue of the economy.
"The hurdle, I would say, is connecting with the Hispanic community -- really going into the community and listening to what the Hispanic community is saying and listening to how they view the economy, how they view solutions for this country, and saying, 'I understand your community,'" she said. "There have been a few conservatives, a few Republicans, who use such harsh rhetoric, such a harsh tone, when it comes to immigration that it turns people off."
Ginger Gibson contributed to this report.