Nowadays, it seems Republican candidates are competing over who can talk the toughest about illegal immigration. Yet, with November 2012 in mind, some are starting to see a yellow light signaling danger in battleground states with large Hispanic populations. “The discussion of creating electrified fences from sea to sea is neither prudent nor helpful,” said Ryan Call, chairman of the Republican Party of Colorado, where Hispanics cast 13% of the votes in 2008 and helped President Obama flip the state to blue. “They’re throwing red meat around in an attempt to mollify a particular aspect of the Republican base.” It is worth noting that besides Colorado, Obama cemented his victory in part by carrying three other swing states with large Hispanic voting populations: Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico. Republican strategists have hoped to win many of these voters back by appealing to their discontent over the economy and to their social conservatism—issues that helped George W. Bush win a historically high 44% of Hispanic voters in 2004. Now, however, Republican strategists agree that this direction may be problematic.

Among those who are postulating themselves as candidates for the next presidential election, both Herman Cain and Representative Michele Bachmann are proposing a 1,200-mile border fence. Mr. Cain said over the weekend that “part of his immigration policy would be to build an electrified fence on the country’s border with Mexico that could kill people trying to enter the country illegally.” This graphically outward display of hatred towards Hispanics is indeed very disturbing. The anti-immigrant rhetoric has reached such exaggerated lengths that it is astonishing to see how these nominees conduct themselves with such lack of sensitivity. Even Mr. Romney, who has been more measured in his remarks, may have lost Hispanic support over his criticism of a Texas law that allows some children of illegal immigrants to attend state colleges on in-state tuition. Mitt Romney has attacked Gov. Rick Perry of Texas as being soft on illegal immigration, at which Mr. Perry answered back accusing Mr. Romney of “hypocrisy” because, Mr. Perry said, “you had illegals working on your property.” “He can make as many trips to Florida and New Mexico and Colorado and other swing states that have a large Latino population, but he can write off the Latino vote. He’s not going to gain it again,” said Lionel Sosa, a strategist in Texas who has advised Mr. Bush on appealing to Hispanics. In each of those states, plus Nevada, Hispanics are a growing share of eligible voters, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. But even though Hispanics have traditionally favored Democrats, this preference went from garnering 67% of their votes in 2008, to only 60% during the 2010-midterm elections in which the Republican Party won a considerable majority. Despite quite a few Hispanics voting Republican due to their discontent with the economy, many more disapproved of the GOP’s harsh stance on border fencing and the DREAM Act legislation. “Their rhetoric on illegal immigration is very over the top. It will cost them in the future,” the strategist said.

A poll released by Latino Decisions, which is an organization that focuses on “states in which the Latino vote will play an important role in the 2012 elections,” shows that GOP presidential candidates have low recognition within this demographic. According to this poll, “none of the Republican presidential candidates has been able to captivate or attract the attention of Latinos until now. In other words, for the time being, among the eight candidates, there is no one equivalent to George W. Bush who would attract a significant percentage of the Latino vote.” The poll indicates that 46% of Latino voters have never heard of Mitt Romney and 40% have never heard of Rick Perry, even though they are the best known among the Republican candidates. Mitt Romney, who is apparently the favorite among the nominees, is favored by only 28% of Latino voters, while 25% have an unfavorable impression of him, and the rest of whom do not favor a Republican candidate at all. Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, “is someone few of the country’s Latino voters know: 40% of them have no idea who he is. Likewise, his approval level is abysmal and still lower than Romney’s at 22%. His level of disapproval is higher at 39%.”

In Florida, where the Hispanic vote has traditionally leaned Republican because of large number of conservative Cuban-Americans, immigration issues may be especially divisive in 2012. The fact that the Florida Senate refused to pass a tough immigration bill last spring is telling. Joe Grunters, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County in Florida, said that showing toughness against illegal immigration was an “electrifying” issue and could bump a Republican candidate many points in primary polls. “In case they’re the nominee, it could be a deal-breaker where they take themselves out as a serious contender.” Yet will appealing to Tea Party members be enough to secure a Republican victory in Florida? This will remain to be seen. One thing that is certain, however, is that Hispanics are an ever-growing, prominent demographic, and they are here to stay so it would be wise not to alienate them any further, for not all of them are undocumented aliens, many have a legal stake in this country and it is theirs whose vote should be feared.