02:28 - Source: CNN
GOP candidates and the Latino vote

Story highlights

Latina women a political forced to be reckoned with

Immigration and DREAM Act important issues to them

Latinos leaning toward Democrats for first time since Reagan era

Editor’s Note: Rose Arce is a senior producer working for CNN’s “Starting Point” during the Florida Republican presidential primary and a contributor to Mamiverse, a website for Latinas and their families.

Jacksonville, Florida CNN —  

When it comes to courting the Latino demographic, there’s a demo within that demo that might be worth listening to.

Let’s call it the Soccer mamis – the Latina mothers who represent 55% of the overall U.S. population growth, according to 2010 Census figures. Their babies account for nearly a quarter of the children being born in the U.S.

Rene Alegria started a blog called Mamiverse targeting this group after doing marketing research that showed Latina moms have enormous influence over how their community makes decisions on things like buying and core beliefs.

“We’re taught from a very early age to respect and honor our parents, our moms in particular,” he said. “As more and more Latina moms attend college and enter the workforce, her opinions hold a tremendous amount of sway in areas way beyond the home. Politics is one of those areas.”

Florida’s 4.2 million Latinos represent the third-largest Latino population in the United States, 23% of all Floridians. So Alegria commissioned a poll to get some insight into what these Latino mommies care about in the days leading up to Tuesday’s Republican primary. The survey, conducted by Latino Decisions, which gave it a sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points, was released to CNN Thursday morning.

When 300 “mamis” were asked which issues matter most to them, 49% chose the economy and jobs, an area where Latinos have been hit harder than the general population.

A national survey of 1,220 Latinos by Pew Hispanic Research the same day found that the national Latino population sees the economy as an even greater community crisis. That survey reported that 54% of Latinos believe the economic crisis has hit them worse than other groups, 59% said someone in their household is out of work and 75% said their personal finances are in “only fair” or “poor” shape.

There are 50 million Latinos in the United States, 16% of the nation’s population.

But the influential issue that stood out for this group was immigration. Latino moms said immigration and the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants, were important to 32% of them and that they were 71% more likely to support a candidate based on his position on the DREAM Act.

President Barack Obama supports the act, a proposal that would make it possible for illegal immigrants who crossed the border as children to get visas if they are studying or sign up for military service.

Republican candidates have opposed the DREAM Act, with Mitt Romney saying he would veto it and Newt Gingrich expressing support to get visas only for those who join the military.

Obama pointed that out in an interview on Wednesday with the Spanish-language Univision network.

“Obviously in the State of the Union yesterday, I couldn’t have been clearer about not only my interest in comprehensive immigration reform, but if we can’t do the whole package, at minimum let’s get the DREAM Act done. But we now have two Republican candidates who said they’d veto a DREAM Act,” the president said.

One Democratic consultant said a difference like that could mean the difference in an election.

“With the election being decided by just a few dozen votes in some cases, now more than ever emerging voter segments like these can have a major impact in a tight race,” said Maria Cardona, a Democratic political consultant who is a contributor to both Mamiverse and CNN.

The poll results were co-sponsored by Impremedia, the nation’s largest chain of Latino print and online journalism, which will be publishing the results in 15 markets.

Among the mamis, Obama would beat Romney in a hypothetical matchup 57%-28% and Obama would beat Gingrich 59%-26%. The sample was too small to get a read on how they would vote in the upcoming Republican primary.

Latino Decisions, which conducted the Mamiverse/Impremedia poll, released a larger survey on Wednesday of 500 Latinos on behalf of ABC News and Univision. That poll, with a 5% sampling error, has Obama ahead of Romney in Florida by 67%-25% and against Gingrich 70%-22%.

Obama still faced toughed questions in the Univision interview, his first after the State of Union in which he challenged Congress to move on immigration reform.

Asked why more illegal immigrants have been deported under his administration than any other, Obama said that his administration is enforcing the current law.

“That’s the law that’s on the books right now. And the way our system works,” he said. “The president doesn’t have the authority to simply ignore Congress and say, we’re not going to enforce the laws that you’ve passed.”

“What we do have the ability to do, and what we have systematically done, is to use our administrative authority to prioritize and say, let’s not focus on DREAM Act kids.”

The poll also showed education and jobs to be the top issue among all Latinos nationwide, but 25% said they felt Republicans are hostile toward them, 27% said immigration and the DREAM Act were top concerns for them and 54% said they would likely vote against a candidate who pledged to veto the DREAM Act, which Romney has said he would do.

The importance of immigration issues in deciding partisan affiliation has been borne out by other analyses of Latinos. According to Pew Hispanic Center, Latino support for Democrats has risen as the immigration debate heated up.

Republicans had a majority of Latino support until the 2008 election. Of the the 1.5 million Latinos registered to vote in Florida, there are now about 100,000 more registered as Democrats than Republicans.

The vitriol that surfaces when the immigration issue is discussed is what really disturbs most Latina moms and Latinos in general. Whatever a Latina mom’s stance is on immigration, when they hear people use phrases like “those people,” and “them,” a negative impact is made.

Latino support for Republicans nationwide was at an all-time high under President Ronald Reagan – whom Newt Gingrich evokes in his Spanish-language TV ads. Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave residency to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. Both he and George W. Bush received Latino support estimated to run as high as 40%. Support for John McCain, who took a harder stand on immigration, was significantly lower.

Pew’s most recent poll shows Obama with a 45-point lead over Romney, whom Gingrich called anti-immigrant in ads until he took them down following criticism from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida. In a Univision interview on Wednesday, Romney said: “I am not anti-immigrant. I am pro-immigrant. I like immigration.”

He specified that he was talking about legal immigration, which he has said he would encourage without giving specifics as to how that would affect available visas for the large number of applicants from Central and South America.

That ABC/Univision poll showed Romney with a 49%-23% lead over Gingrich among all Florida Latinos, with strong support among the two largest Latino demographics – Cubans in South Florida and Puerto Ricans in Central Florida. For those two groups, immigration isn’t an issue that affects them because Cubans enjoy a quick path to residency upon arrival in the U.S. and Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens.

But Alegria says that doesn’t mean they have been unaffected by the vitriol over immigration.

“No matter what, the general population seems to categorize all Hispanics into one group. Anti-Hispanic laced rhetoric disguised as the ‘immigration debate’ is not good for anyone, whether you’re Cuban, Puerto Rican, Honduran, or Mexican,” he said.