President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney held their last debate last night, going now into the final two weeks of the campaign. (Photo:Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Analysis: Pollsters missing the mark on Latinos

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Welcome to the final sprint. Now that the debates are ‘history,’ both campaigns are staring into the two weeks left of a nail-bitingly tight presidential race, and the presidential and vice presidential candidates have a frantic cross-country schedule, especially in the battleground states.

But has the race gotten any tighter among Latinos, as some Florida-based polls and national polls are alleging? Political analysts who study the Latino vote say no, and they say conventional pollsters are missing the mark.

“These debates didn’t do much to change minds, and the one thing which has been consistent, if you look at our tracking polls and other national polls like NBC/WSJ/Telemundo and Pew Hispanic, is that Latino voters strongly prefer President Obama at margins of 50 percent over Romney,” says political scientist Sylvia Manzano of Latino Decisions. Latino Decisions’ Matt Barreto published an article forcefully arguing that recent national and state polls are not adequately counting Latino voters, which has been happening for decades and has led pollsters to get races wrong by under counting Latino support, like what happened in Nevada in 2010. He says, “these faulty Latino numbers create problems with the overall national estimates.”

Casey Klofstad, who teaches political science at the University of Miami in Florida, agrees. “If you’re just doing a general survey, the number of Latinos in many of these polls will be so low that the margin of error is very high, without regard to statistical significance,” Klofstad says. “This is a disservice to the public and it’s misleading.” Klofstad says in Florida, for example, many in the Cuban-American community of South Florida support Romney, but Florida’s growing Puerto Rican as well as Central and South American population does not always get adequately measured in the polls.

So if Obama has a large advantage among Latino voters, what is the strategy in the final weeks of the campaign?  “At this point for both parties, it’s about turnout, not about changing hearts and minds,” says Sylvia Manzano, a remark echoed by Kloftstad.

Law professor Jose Gabilondo, from Florida International University, remarking on last night’s debate, says that voters see what they like in candidates. “It’s like being attracted to someone on a visceral level, and you see what you want to see, especially since both candidates were trying to do similar things last night,” he says. “President Obama wanted to seem restrained and legitimate and get jabs across, and Governor Romney was also trying to appear presidential and not go out on a limb, and they both did that,” Gabilondo adds. “But I had this feeling watching, where’s the beef?” he says.

Gabilondo, Klofstad and Manzano say the debates missed opportunities to connect with Latino voters, especially on matters of immigration. “If it wasn’t for the voter Lorraine in the second debate, God bless her,” says Manzano smiling, “we never would have even heard of immigration at all.” Gabilondo says he wishes they had touched on voter access issues, as well as had more discussion on Latin America.

So what now?  The campaigns have two weeks. It is all about turnout, especially for Democrats in the Western battleground states and Florida, says Manzano. While Romney has never hit the ’38 percent’ Latino voter mark which many say is needed to win the race, Manzano says Republicans can try to mobilize turnout among the South Florida Republican Latino base.

And with the national race as tight as it is, the Hispanic vote can play a large role — but the key with Latinos is, again, turnout.

“At this point it’s about generating turnout and keeping enthusiasm high,” says Klofstad. “It’s a thin line, you have to keep people encouraged; regardless of what happens in the final weeks, you need turnout, including early voting,” which starts this weekend in Florida.

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