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Latinos still back Obama but don't know GOP candidates, poll shows

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 20: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (R) (D-IL) holds a town hall meeting before a racially diverse crowd at Garfield High School on October 20, 2007 on the east side of Los Angeles, California. East Los Angeles is an area rich in potential Latino votes. Latinos are the fastest growing voting population in the US and therefore, increasingly important to the presidential candidates. Hispanic voters could play crucial roles in several key states including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Florida, and Texas.
Then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama holds a town hall meeting before a racially diverse crowd at Garfield High School on October 20, 2007 on the east side of Los Angeles, California. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

If the presidential election were today, Latino voters would support President Obama over his GOP opponent -- whomever that may be -- by a wide two-to-one margin, according to a new Univision/Latino Decisions poll.

Still, the poll suggests there's an opening for Republicans to make inroads with Latinos, a voting bloc that's increasing in importance. Latinos are still largely unfamiliar with the Republican candidates -- for instance, more than half said they don't know enough about Herman Cain to offer an opinion about him. Meanwhile, Latinos, like other Democratic constituencies, are less excited this year about supporting the president. Still, hardline anti-immigration rhetoric appears to be holding back Latino support for Republicans.

Mr. Obama tops Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Herman Cain by two-to-one margins, according to the poll, conducted nationally from October 21 to November 1. Two polls were conducted, one of all registered voters and another of Latino registered voters, and the margin of error for both is 3.1 percent. The head-to-head match ups mirror the 2008 election, when Mr. Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is the best-known Republican candidate among Latinos, but he also has the worst gap in his favorability ratings, with 42 percent saying they have an unfavorable opinion of him and 21 percent saying they have a favorable opinion.

By comparison, Latinos still back the president significantly more than the country as a whole does. Sixty-six percent say they approve of his job performance, compared with just 48 percent of Americans polled overall. Only 29 percent of Latinos say they disapprove.

Still, Latinos are much less interested in voting in 2012 than Americans overall. While 61 percent of the general electorate says they're very excited about voting next year, just 47 percent of Latinos say that. As many as 53 percent of Latinos say they're less excited about Mr. Obama than they were in 2008 -- that includes 44 percent, a plurality, of Latino Democrats.

Some Latino activists have said Mr. Obama can't count on Latino support, in part because of his aggressive deportation policies and lack of action on immigration reform. Still, Republicans have failed to offer an alternative; activists point to comments like Herman Cain's proposal for an electric border fence as offensive to the Latino community.

Mobilizing Latino turnout could be critical for Mr. Obama in swing states where the Latino population is growing, like Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mr. Obama has even spent notable time this year in Texas -- a traditional GOP stronghold that because of its growing Latino population is starting to look friendlier to Democrats.

The 2010 Census shows that there are now over 50 million Latinos across the country, and the demographic trends suggest their political clout will also grow. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund projects that a record 12.2 million Latinos will vote next year.

Like other voters, Latinos' biggest concern is the economy -- 65 percent said that was the most important issue to them in an election. By comparison, 23 percent named immigration, and while both health care and education garnered 16 percent. An overwhelming 57 percent of Latinos said they trust Mr. Obama and the Democrats over Republicans to fix the economy.

On top of that, 59 percent of Latino voters said they'd be less likely to support a candidate if that candidate used strong anti-immigration rhetoric, even if they approved of the candidate's economic plans.