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Insight on the News
Future Hinges On Hispanic Vote
By Jamie Dettmer
October 1, 2001
President George W. Bush actively is wooing America's largest minority group, but some within the GOP worry that Latinos are being pandered to for purely electoral reasons.
Since arriving in Washington, President George W. Bush has persisted in believing that the GOP can engineer a major shift in US. electoral politics and seize a sizable chunk of a voting bloc that the Democrats have come to assume is solidly loyal. Using Cabinet picks and tailoring policy -- including floating the idea of granting an amnesty to more than 3 million Mexicans living in the United States illegally -- the president has continued with a high-profile effort to woo skeptical Latinos away from the Democrats.
Some prominent Republicans, including Sens. John Warner of Virginia and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, worried publicly that Bush and his advisers are overplaying their hand and have been ill-advised in changing some policies because of what they see as a mistaken assumption that Latino votes can be won that way.
Even when Bush was considering in the summer whether to give the goahead for federal funding of stemcell research, White House sources say, he tried to calculate how the predominantly Roman Catholic Latinos would react. His aides reckoned that funding for limited research wouldn't endanger the grand realignment scheme to attract Hispanics to the GOP.
Likewise, the White House has made no secret that the electoral focus on Latinos was a major factor in the president's decision to make Mexico his first foreign port of call after inauguration - snubbing the more traditional European venue or Canada -- and to honor Mexican President Vicente Fox with Bush's first state dinner. In less than eight months in office Bush has met five times with Fox, who is portrayed by White House staff as "Bush's Tony Blair," a reference to the chummy relationship formed between Bill Clinton and the British prime minister.
But the question remains whether Republicans significantly can cut the comfortable margin Democrats enjoy among Latino voters, say pollsters and political consultants. At first glance the task is daunting, even an impossible dream -- but then skeptics abounded when Ronald Reagan targeted the votes of blue-collar workers and organized labor, GOP advocates of Hispanic-outreach programs in the White House and at the Republican National Committee (RNC) tell Insight.
America's largest minority group -- during the last census recorded at 12.5 percent of the population -- Latinos traditionally have voted overwhelmingly Democratic in both presidential and congressional races, although their rates of turnout and registration are lower than those of blacks or whites (see sidebar, p. 39), according to exit polls conducted by the Associated Press and the Voter News Service. Last year, Al Gore secured 69 percent of the Latino vote, and Clinton garnered 72 percent in the 1996 election.
Across all Latin nationality groups except Cubans, the Democratic advantage in party identification among Hispanics is more than 20 percent - and even among Cuban-Americans the GOP's once-healthy advantage has dwindled to a meager 6 percent, rendering Florida a toss-up state. More alarming for Republicans is that, unlike a lot of European minority groups in the past, Latinos appear to identify just as much with Democrats the more educated they are or, if they're immigrants, the longer they've lived in the United States.
A Knight-Ridder study of the voting patterns of Latinos last year suggested also that income does not play a significant role in determining the party loyalties of Hispanics. That's a disappointing conclusion for the White House, considering the high hopes Bush aides have placed on attracting wealthy and educated Latinos by appointing a handful of wellheeled Hispanics to government hosts.
And, on the face of it, there is little succor to be found for the GOP with Latino immigrants waiting or wanting to become US. citizens. The margin of support for the Democrats among them is an even larger 39-to-- 15 percent, according to a 1999 study conducted jointly by Harvard University, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post.
"Mexican-Americans are culturally conservative and they are a potential swing vote, but I doubt the GOP will make much headway with Puerto Ricans and Central Americans. That's an urban vote primarily. And I'm not sure that the way the Republicans are approaching the Mexicans will pay off, either -- the GOP has a lot to live down before it will earn their trust," Democratic pollster James Lauer tells Insight.
Lauer points out that the White House may be banking too much on influencing Mexican-Americans by arguing for substantial changes to immigration regulations, including the introduction of a more generous guest-worker scheme. Like most immigrants and nonimmigrants alike, Mexican-Americans share the view that there has been enough immigration already, according to opinion polls.
The broad statistics and the doubts, though, aren't deterring the White House. Earlier in the year Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser, told reporters in Washington that grabbing a bigger share of the Latino vote is "our mission and our goal" and that it will require the effort of all Republicans "in every way and every day working to get that done."
With this in mind, Rove lobbied the president hard -- and in the face of stiff opposition from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon -- to stop the U.S. Navy from using Vieques , a small island off Puerto Rico , as a bombing range, White House and Pentagon sources tell Insight. He argued that by doing so Bush would boost Republican standing with the ultraliberal Puerto Ricans and Latinos in general. RNC sources concede that they can't find any specific opinion-poll bump in Latino support for Bush or the GOP as a result of the Vieques decision.
That may be because the president's Vieques decision prompted high-profile attacks from senior Republican senators, who argued publicly in press conferences on Capitol Hill that the decision was purely one of electoral calculation worthy of Bill Clinton. "As much as I love George W. Bush, he was ill-advised by political advisers who thought this was a way to win some votes," harrumphed Inhofe on CNN.
For Rove and other advisers tasked to identify the votes that will hand Bush a clear mandate in 2004 -- one that will lay to rest the confused election result of 2000 -- the senators who opposed the Vieques decision are missing the point. Rove sees the math as simple: For the president to get re-elected the Republicans need to keep competitive in voter-rich states such as Illinois, where an increasing Latino presence threatens to make the political environment friendlier for Democratic candidates, RNC campaign strategists tell Insight. Bush needs to ensure a win in Florida and focus on several smaller states where Latino numbers are gaining -- states such as North Carolina, Iowa and Oregon.
Small numbers could be as crucial as last year, and it isn't hard to see the Latino vote making a monumental difference in a race that goes down to the wire. In Oregon, for example, Gore beat Bush last November by 6,700 votes. The state has 55,000 registered Latino voters and they backed the Democrat overwhelmingly. In New Mexico -- the U.S. state with the highest percentage of Mexican-born people -- Gore won by a wafer-thin 366-vote margin.
Syndicated columnist Raoul Lowery Contreras points to Iowa, Oregon and New Mexico as three good reasons for Bush to mount his Latino effort. He recently maintained in a column that it was wrong to think there are not "enough potential voters for Bush to appeal to -- to make a difference." He only has to gain 11,278 more Mexican-American votes in three states to increase his Electoral College victory by 40 votes, based on last year's election, the commentator enthused.
Bush campaign advisers agree but tell Insight that the focus must be wider than a handful of small states. They insist the president has no alternative but to target Latino voters and improve his numbers by more than the 35 percent he secured last year -- itself not a bad performance and the best showing for a Republican candidate since Reagan in 1980 and 1984. The demographics demand it for both Bush and the long-term future of the GOP. With the Latino population growing rapidly, Bush likely would lose the presidency by 3 million votes unless he boosts his share of the Hispanic vote.
"We got 35 percent of the Hispanic vote" in the last election, RNC spokesman Trent Duffy recently told Insight. "If we don't get that up to 38 or 40 percent, it's all over." Matthew Dowd, a Bush adviser in last year's election campaign, has chorused regularly in sessions with Rove that more must be done on the Hispanic front, White House sources say.
In 1998 the clout of the Latino vote was demonstrated to the GOP when Dan Lungren so decisively lost his gubernatorial race with Democrat Gray Davis in California. GOP outreach advocates contrast Lungren's defeat with another governor's race that year in Texas, where Bush courted Latinos aggressively and secured about 49 percent of the Lone Star State's Hispanic vote.
They also maintain that Bush's wooing last year of Latinos paid off -- he grabbed 14 percent more Hispanic votes than Bob Dole, his GOP predecessor, who secured a mere 21 percent of the Hispanic vote cast. But was the reward substantial enough? Skeptics, Republican as well as Democrat, tell Insight that Bush should have done even better, considering the significant election resources that were thrown into the campaign to attract Latinos. These included fashioning a Latino-centered convention that prominently featured the president's telegenic nephew George P. Bush.
The president appeared to acknowledge his own disappointment in a magazine interview last December when asked how he felt about his effort to get more black and Hispanic votes. "Got whipped pretty good," he quipped to Time magazine. But Bush clearly believes he can make further inroads into Democratic territory. And of all Republican presidents or national GOP candidates of the past, he has the background and credentials to pull it off -- especially with the help of his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his Mexican-- American wife and children.
Having grown up in the heavily Latino-influenced oil fields of Texas, Bush has far better instincts about how to communicate with Hispanics than his father, who at the 1980 GOP convention in New Orleans introduced his three Mexican-American grandchildren to Reagan as "the little brown ones." The president has his own political grounding in Latino affairs as a former border governor -- and his ability to speak Spanish as well, or as badly as his English, is worth a lot.
There also is polling evidence to encourage GOP hopes. Regular summer opinion polls conducted by Gallup recorded a 59 percent approval rating for Bush among Latinos. Remove Puerto Ricans and the rating breaks 60 percent.
Several other Bush issues also are resonating well, including a 75 percent approval of Bush's plan to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement to the whole hemisphere, according to a Gallup poll. With that kind of polling, GOP outreach advocates tell Insight that Latino conservatism may assist Bush and the GOP to overcome the Democratic voter-- registration drives to win more Hispanic support in 2002 and 2004. Rep. 'Ibm Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, puts it this way: "We do not concede the Latino vote."
This is all a far cry from 1994, when California's Pete Wilson crafted his re-election bid for governor around a nativist proposal to deny state benefits to illegal immigrants in a state where non-Hispanic whites no longer are a majority. Now a GOP president has proposed allowing more Mexicans the legal opportunity to live and work in the United States. Back then, Wilson broadcast an ad depicting Mexicans slipping across the Southwest border with the voiceover announcing grimly: "They just keep coming."
California sums up the challenge for the GOP. While Latinos -- and Mexican-Americans especially -- tend to approve of the Republican line that taxes should be lower and remain in sympathy with some key social-conservative positions of the GOP, such as opposition to abortion, they associate the party with several "anti-immigrant" policies that strike at their pride, Democratic consultants say. Those include an unsuccessful measure backed by then-House speaker Newt Gingrich and then-Senate majority leader Dole to block the children of illegal immigrants from attending public schools.
A division remains at the national level, with some senators and congressmen concerned that the outreach effort will not bear the fruit promised. "I worry that we will be seen as pandering for purely electoral reasons," a senior GOP senator tells Insight. "Take the Vieques decision - the Navy really needs that range and we did a disservice to the military. And take immigration -- I'm not sure our own grassroots approved of the amnesty idea at all."
The senator also points to another worry skeptics of the Bush approach frequently mention: that the White House fails to discriminate between the nationality groups within the Latino vote and fails in the sophisticated understanding of what appeals to the different groups. "Latino voters cannot simply be pushed into a single category," he says.
The irritation caused by the amnesty Bush floated for MexicanAmericans is a case in point. Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans argue that the same rights and privileges also should be extended to them.
A Tale of Turnout
Republican and Democratic skeptics of the Hispanic-outreach programs maintain that the Bush approach could backfire. Arguing that the turnout of Latino voters is low by comparison with non-Hispanic whites and blacks, they wonder if the GOP focus could reinforce Democratic efforts to increase turnout but merely end up swelling the Democratic vote. "They may find that their efforts increase a Democratic-voting turnout," says pollster James Lauer.
Only one of every four voting-age adults in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods voted in last year's presidential election -- way under the average national turnout of 51 percent. In California, 22 percent of the voting-age population in Hispanic precincts cast ballots last year; in New Mexico and Illinois it was less than 20 percent, according to an Associated Press study of last November's results.