The Republican Party has a problem heading into the elections — a Latino gap that may be getting bigger.
The Republican National Committee plans to roll out a major Hispanic outreach effort in the coming weeks, Roll Call has learned, but Democrats, who have traditionally held an advantage among those voters, may have beat them to the punch again.
In addition to efforts by the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, left-leaning groups have been coaching Latino voters to register their relatives and canvass neighborhoods.
The data suggest Democrats are gaining ground with the rapidly growing community.
In a hypothetical matchup between Obama and Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, 68 percent of Hispanics responding to a Pew survey released last month supported the president.
“We have catching up to do. I think we’ll admit we haven’t been the best at reaching out to the community,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said in an interview.
She would not disclose how much the outreach campaign would cost but said its focus would be on battleground states with large Hispanic populations: Nevada, Colorado, Florida and New Mexico. In New Mexico, eligible Hispanic voters account for 40 percent of the electorate.
In many of those states, the RNC faces an uphill battle. Even in Florida, where a large population of conservative Cuban-Americans live, more Hispanics are now registered as Democrats than as Republicans.
“Hispanics continue to show strong party allegiance to the Democrats,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.
Part of the RNC’s strategy is engaging young people through social media. About 600,000 Latinos reach voting age each year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Democratic groups have also focused on that subset. The left-leaning New Organizing Institute has trained young Latinos in Texas and Arizona on voter outreach. Judith Freeman, the group’s executive director and a Democrat, said it has become “starkly clear how much the Latino population is going to impact politics in the next 20 years.”
Political involvement appears to be growing with the population of first-generation Latinos — those who were born here or educated in American schools. Many of those leading advocacy efforts in the community belong to that generation.
In Arizona, 18-year-old Pedro Lopez led a competition among high schools to register voters in large Latino areas. Most of those who registered were parents of the students or members of the communities in which the students lived.
Seeing their children get involved politically “is encouraging the parents to join their sons and daughters and be part of the political process,” he said.
Through Lopez and others of his generation, Freeman’s group has been trying to reach the many Hispanics who are not using their right to vote. In 2010, a Pew analysis of government data shows that nearly half of the Hispanic population eligible to vote did not register to do so. Of those who did register, about 40 percent did not vote.
In 2008, a landmark election with record Hispanic participation, only 41 percent of eligible young Latinos voted, compared with 51 percent of young voters in general.
Organizers see these figures as an opportunity to bring in record numbers of voters who could reshape the electoral map.