By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hispanics favor President Barack Obama's policies over those of Republican rival Mitt Romney by large margins but many in the fast-growing voter group are still undecided on issues more than six months ahead of the presidential election.
Hispanics also feel the Democratic Party better serves the needs of most Americans than the Republican Party, which bodes poorly for Romney and members of his party running in congressional and state elections.
Latinos clearly backed Obama over Romney on seven out of eight issues - from immigration to social security - in a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Thursday. The two were in a statistical tie in the eighth area: the economy.
Thirty-three percent of Hispanics felt Obama has a better policy, plan or approach on immigration, compared to 14 percent for Romney who was criticized by Latinos for suggesting illegal immigrants should "self-deport" themselves.
The U.S. economy was the only area in which Hispanics rated the incumbent president and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee similarly.
But the online survey found that many Hispanics - who account for 17 percent of the U.S. population - are still undecided, giving the Republicans time to win them over before the November 6 elections.
This is particularly true on the economy, the issue Americans consider most important in the election, said Chris Jackson, research director at Ipsos Public Affairs.
"Because so few people are actually paying attention right now, I think they have time to change things," Jackson said. "They haven't been paying attention so whoever is in front of them first with the best message can lay first claim and set the sort of tone of the conversation."
Twenty-five percent of Hispanics surveyed backed Obama's approach to the economy compared with 21 percent for Romney's, making it a statistical dead heat.
But more picked neither the Democrat nor the Republican's policies or had no opinion that supported either. Twenty-eight percent said "none," when asked whose policies they preferred for the U.S. economy. Twenty-six percent said they were undecided.
Jackson said Republicans still had room to make their case on the economy to Hispanics, many of whom are key voters in swing states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado.
"With Hispanics, there's definitely an opening for that discussion," Jackson said.
In other policy areas, Obama was well ahead of the former Massachusetts governor.
Thirty-five percent of Hispanics felt that Obama had a better policy, plan or approach to healthcare, compared with 17 percent for Romney, the online poll found. And 42 percent favored Obama's plans on taxes, versus 17 percent for Romney.
Obama also led among Hispanics on foreign policy issues, with 29 percent favoring his policies on Iran, to 19 percent for Romney's, and 28 percent backing the Democrat on anti-terrorism policies, against 17 percent for Romney.
On issues across the board, large percentages of Hispanics had no preference or no opinion, notably 48 percent on healthcare and 41 percent on taxes.
In the 2008 election, Obama defeated Republican John McCain by margin of 2-1 among Hispanics - 67 percent to 31 percent - a major reason why he won the White House.
Hispanics have been gravitating toward the Democratic Party since then, Jackson said. Republicans have taken an increasingly hard line on immigration, which many Latinos see as racist.
The survey results reflected the stark racial divide in the U.S. electorate, with whites favoring Romney's policies on every policy issue, and blacks behind Obama's by large margins with fewer members of both groups undecided than among Hispanics.
For example, 36 percent of whites favored Romney on healthcare compared to 24 percent for Obama. And 41 percent favored the Republican on the U.S. economy against 23 percent for Obama. Blacks favored Obama by 74 to 4 percent on healthcare and 67 percent to 11 percent on the economy.
When asked about their views of the Democratic and Republican parties, Latinos backed the Democrats, showing that Romney, and his fellow Republicans in congressional and state races have a great deal of work to do.
Fifty-one percent of Hispanics believed the Democrats better serve the needs of young voters, compared to just 6 percent who said Republicans do. Twice as many, 36 percent, said Democrats were better for Americans over age 65, than the 18 percent who favored Republicans.
On the issues, they generally favored the Democrats, though large percentages said they favored independents, or neither party, or they had no opinion.
A larger margin even favored the Democratic party on the U.S. economy, at 38 percent to 21 percent for the Republicans.
The only area in which the Republicans scored higher than Democrats with Hispanics was when they were asked which party better serves the needs of business and corporations. Some 41 percent picked Republicans against 21 percent for Democrats.
The online poll of 2,079 Americans was conducted from April 9-26.
The precision of the Reuters/Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll has a credibility interval of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points for all respondents
The interval for the 1,397 white respondents was 3.1 percent. For the 239 African-American respondents, it was 7.4 percent and for Hispanics it was 6.7 percent.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Christopher Wilson)