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Agence France-Presse

Politics: Democrats Struggle To Hold Hispanic Support


May 31, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

LOS ANGELES - Concerned over Republicans' growing clout among Hispanic-Americans, Democrats are developing new strategies to keep the increasingly crucial Latin vote from changing political sides.

In the 2000 presidential elections, Democrats looked on helplessly as George W. Bush garnered significant Hispanic support through an aggressive campaign targeting newly sworn citizens.

"I want to suggest that one part of the reason is that Democrats are not effectively fashioning new programs and new ideas," Sen. Joe Lieberman, Democratic vice president Al Gore's running mate in 2000, told a Los Angeles forum Wednesday titled, "The Fight for the Latin Vote."

"The 2000 presidential election delivered a wake-up call to Democrats that they should not take Latino voters for granted," Tomas Rivera Political Institute president Harry Pachon said.

Traditionally, Hispanic voters in the United States have largely supported Democratic candidates. In 1988, 65 percent of Hispanics voted for Michael Dukakis; in 1992, 65 percent voted for Bill Clinton, and 70 percent backed his re-election four years later.

In the last presidential elections in 2000, however, Republicans made some inroads, robbing Gore of some Hispanic support - just 62 percent voted for him.

"Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, has made no secret of the fact that cracking the Democratic hold on Hispanic voters is a central element of GOP political strategy," Pachon said.

As the November legislative elections and the 2004 presidential elections draw closer, Democrats are seeking a "healthy political competition between our political parties for the support of the rising Latino vote," Lieberman said.

Even though they number 35.3 million and represent a 12.5 percent chunk of the U.S. population, many Hispanics lack voting rights because they are not U.S. citizens. Those who can cast ballots traditionally do so in low levels.

Both these tendencies are changing, however. In 2000, 6 million Hispanics went to the polling booths - only 5.3 percent of their voting sector but a 132 percent increase over 1980 levels.

And over the next 10 years, some 4 million U.S.-born Hispanics will reach voting age, swelling the Hispanic voting ranks.

"The party that wins the battle for the Latino vote will also be the party that determines the policies and the laws that lead our country in this new century," Democratic congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard said.

While Bush has steered clear of measures favoring the working class, and by extension Hispanics, he has adopted new regulations on residency applications that have increased his popularity among Hispanics, Lieberman said.

"The president is enjoying a very respectable amount of support from Latino voters today in terms of his job performance, well beyond the percentage of votes that he had in 2000," Lieberman said.

Another winning strategy for Bush has been catering to Hispanics in states with traditionally low Hispanic populations.

"Some of us laughed when Bush started Spanish-speaking commercials in Iowa during the presidential primaries, but it turned out that the laugh was on us, since Iowa has Latinos as a first minority now," Pachon said.

"Latinos' political power is not a potential but a reality," he added. "It's time for us to see what that reality is."

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