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Scripps Howard News Service

Bush's Latino Problem

Already sweating over the party's prospects in 2004, Republicans are busily developing a strategy to corral a Hispanic vote that is expanding at an extraordinary rate.


April 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Scripps Howard News Service. All Rights Reserved.

Census figures show that the Latino population grew by almost 60 percent during the 1990s to an estimated 35.3 million. Sometime this decade, Hispanics will replace African Americans as the nation's largest minority group.

With that growth comes votes.

The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a California research group that focuses on Latino issues, said that 7.7 million Latinos were registered to vote in the 2000 election and that voter turnout more than doubled between 1980 and 2000, growing from 2,453,000 to 5,713,000 last year.

It's possible, experts say, that the number of Hispanics registered to vote could hit 10 million by 2004, in time for the next presidential election, and turnout could reach 7 million, marking the Latino community as a major political force.

That's good news for Democrats. Save for those with Cuban roots who have embraced a Republican style of aggressive anti-communism, Hispanics have traditionally voted Democratic in overwhelming fashion.

Exit polls showed that President Bush captured an estimated 35 percent of the Latino vote on Nov. 7, 2000, with almost all of the remaining 65 percent going to his Democratic opponent, then-Vice President Al Gore. Still, Bush's showing was the best by a GOP presidential candidate among Latinos since former President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

"He did better than most,'' said Matt Barreto, an official with the Tomas Rivera institute. "But he really didn't meet their projections. They were talking about him getting 40 percent and he got in the low 30s. California did much worse than he was hoping for. He still definitely has some ground to make up.''

With turnout declining or stagnant among whites and blacks and surging among Hispanics, Bush's director of polling during the campaign, Matthew Dowd, has estimated that if minorities were to vote in identical percentages in 2004 as they did in 2000, Bush could lose by 3 million votes.

Iowa, North Carolina and Oregon, usually considered toss-ups, could in future elections be decided by Latino turnout.

The numbers have spurred the GOP into action. Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has laid plans to expand party outreach efforts to minorities, particularly Hispanics.

"If the Republican Party is to succeed in the future, we must double our efforts in attracting more people,'' Gilmore said. "We must work together at every level, in every precinct, and in every state to reach new people and tell them why the Republican Party best represents the values of America's working families.''

The task won't be easy, said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Valasquez Institute, a Latino advocacy group in Texas.

"Objectively, the Republicans need to do something,'' Gonzalez said. "Their base is an aging white population and there really isn't much wiggle room for them in the black community. Coldly reading the facts, blacks are very disciplined and when they decided to go Democratic, they went Democratic. It will be hard to break out of that.''

That leaves Hispanics and Asians as potentially fertile territory. But the Asian community is small and Latinos likely will remain out of reach absent a "fundamental policy shift and I don't think they're going to do anything revolutionary as far as policies,'' Gonzalez said.

Hispanics, he said, "see themselves as a working-class, populist group and they accept the Democratic thesis that government should help the less fortunate. They believe in an activist state as opposed to Republicans, which seems to operate under the thesis that government should be passive and just facilitate a few things.''

Republicans likely see Hispanics as potential converts, Gonzalez said, because they have proved to be self-reliant.

"That's because they've had to be,'' he said.

Barreto said Hispanics cling to the Democratic Party for essentially the same reasons as blacks.

"What we've seen in our surveys is that they are more comfortable with Democrats solving their issues,'' Barreto said. "They are looking at a lot of social welfare issues, health insurance issues, that are more Democratic in nature. They're not looking at business regulations or something like that that the Republicans might be interested in.''

Absent a philosophical shift, Gonzalez said, Republicans will have to rely on appointments and symbolism. Latinos have been appointed to high public positions under Bush - Alberto Gonzalez is White House counsel, for instance, while Rosario Marin is the president's choice for treasurer - and Bush has gained ground through symbolic gestures.

"He's played lovey-dovey with (Mexico President Vicente) Fox, he beat up on Fidel Castro and he speaks some Spanish,'' Gonzalez said. "That stuff appeals to some constituents.''

The Hispanic vote has yet to reach critical mass. While the Latino population is roughly equivalent to the African-American population, black voter registration almost doubles the Hispanic numbers. The difference is that the Hispanic numbers show no sign of leveling off and Hispanics are getting more active politically, running for mayor in six major cities, including New York and Los Angeles, the nation's largest.

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