Can Republicans Win Latino Voters in 2012?

Republican presidential candidates, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (L) speaks as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listens in the Fox News/Google GOP Debate on September 22, 2011 in Orlando, Florida.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, President and founder of the National Institute for Latino Policy, Angelo Falcón, talked about how the GOP candidates and President Obama are courting the Latino vote.

GOP's mistake: Conflating Latino voters with illegal immigration

Angelo Falcón sees a huge problem for the Republican presidential candidates: They can't speak to or about Latino voters without bringing up the party's hard line against illegal immigration.

Falcón points out that the vast majority of Latino Americans are citizens, not illegals, and many are more concerned about jobs and the economy than they are about immigration policy. (Latino unemployment hovers close to 12 percent.) But any time Latinos come up in a Republican debate, for example, the conversation seems to switch.

Rick Santorum, during the CNN/Tea Party debate, instead of saying 'Latino voters', he said 'the illegal vote'. There's something happening in the mentality within that sector of the Republican party and among the candidates that they basically can't shake the [immigration] issue and equating it with Latino voters. That's really hurting the party in terms of outreach to the Latino community.

Perry breaks the mold, but is it bad for his candidacy?

The Republican candidate with the most forgiving line on illegal immigration is Rick Perry, who in a recent debate said that opponents of amnesty policies like the DREAM Act didn't "have a heart". That played poorly with the conservative base, but Angelo Falcón said that Perry's answer reflected the difficult position in which he finds himself: Whether to shift right on the national stage, or defend the policies that helped get him elected governor of Texas.

As governor, you have to deal with the fact that Texas has about one-fifth of the Latino population in the country...You have to grapple with the political reality of that, and the reality that you have the largest portion of the border with Mexico to deal with. It really has created backlash for his candidacy.

Obama or bust

With the Republican field the way it is, can any candidate hope to steal Latino voters from Barack Obama, who carried that demographic so handily in 2008?

There's plenty working against Obama in the eyes of Latinos: The struggling economy, disproportionate unemployment, the fact that Obama has, in one term, deported more illegal immigrants that George W. Bush did in two terms. But Angelo Falcón said the wort thing that would happen on election day is that Latino voters stay home—it's unlikely they'd cast a ballot for a Republican.

One thing is that there's tremendous disappointment with the Obama administration, which has promised a lot and delivered very little. But [Obama] is making all sorts of efforts to reach out to the Latino community. The Republican candidates have not even started any serious outreach efforts in the community, except their rhetoric is getting more and more negative.

I think the hope in the Obama administration is that in fact the Republican rhetoric will drive Latinos to vote for Obama...It's not clear they'll have many places to go besides Obama.