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A Voting Bloc Without a Party


October 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

Gov. George E. Pataki is not a flashy politician and his campaign this year is hardly high voltage, but he is working a quiet revolution among New York's Latino voters. One of the poorest communities in the state, they are traditionally one of the most left-leaning in the country. Yet a recent poll by The New York Times shows that among Hispanics the governor is in a statistical dead heat with his rival, H. Carl McCall, and insiders predict that he could win as much as 40 percent to 45 percent of the Latino vote.

In this instance as ever, most politics are local. Mr. Pataki has run a brilliant back-room campaign, using the power of his office to dole out benefits, like a raise for health-care workers, to traditional Democratic supporters. But the New York vote is not an anomaly. Politicians in state after state are finding that Latinos are not automatic Democrats. Like any neglected constituency, they appreciate being courted. And though they aren't entirely unmoored – the majority still start with a preference for Democratic positions – they are increasingly up for grabs politically.

In Texas, the Democratic establishment assumed Hispanics saw themselves as "minority voters." Party activists spent years recruiting Ron Kirk, who is black, and Tony Sanchez, a Hispanic businessman, to run for senator and governor, respectively. Together with the white candidate for lieutenant governor, they were labeled the Dream Team – and assumed that their only real challenge would be turning out enough of the minority vote to trump Republicans' advantage among white Texans.

But in Texas as in New York, Latinos don't automatically identify with black voters or support black candidates. In the Lone Star State, too, the two groups often compete for power in big cities. (Just last year, they went head to head in Houston, and Orlando Sanchez, the Republican mayoral candidate, nearly upset the black incumbent, Lee Brown.) Though Texas Hispanics have traditionally voted Democratic, a groundbreaking recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only four in 10 now identify as Democrats, even less than the surprisingly low national figure for Latinos of 49 percent.

No wonder Democrats are growing pessimistic about a sweep by the Dream Team. Polls show black voters lining up behind Mr. Sanchez, but Latinos are lukewarm about Mr. Kirk: only about a third of them say they are planning to vote for him, and the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has endorsed his Republican rival.

Things look a little better for the Democrats in California. The party could hardly have headed into the election with a bigger advantage. Few of the state's Latinos will ever forget the xenophobic TV ads Republicans ran in 1994 in support of Proposition 187, the statewide ballot initiative denying public schooling and other government services to illegal immigrants. Nor does it help that this year's Republican gubernatorial challenger, Bill Simon, has mounted one of the weakest statewide campaigns in the country.

But even in California a misstep by a Democrat can erode Latino loyalty – as Gov. Gray Davis learned earlier this month when he vetoed a bill that would have allowed undocumented workers to apply for driver's licenses. The reaction from Hispanic elected officials was swift: the bill's sponsor excoriated the governor, and the state's Latino Legislative Caucus refused to endorse Mr. Davis. He is now trying to repair the damage, and he will still win a majority among Hispanic voters. But his margin – and Latino turnout – may be far from what he once counted on.

Poll after poll shows Hispanics dividing roughly into thirds when asked if they are liberal, conservative or middle of the road. Most look first to government to solve the problems of their community – a fundamentally liberal inclination. They are more conservative than most Americans when it comes to social issues like abortion and homosexuality, but they invariably place more importance on bread-and-butter issues like education and the economy. And the Pew poll, like others before it, shows that partisan affiliation rarely runs deep.

Individual candidates consistently matter more to Latino voters than party labels. Republican mayors Rudolph W. Giuliani, Michael R. Bloomberg and, in Los Angeles, Richard J. Riordan have all won between 40 percent and 60 percent of the Latino vote, and even nationwide, where party labels count for much more, George W. Bush managed to carry 35 percent in 2002 (compared to only 9 percent of black voters).

Nor are Hispanic voters strongly attracted to ideological identity politics. A recent survey by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, for example, found only one in 10 Latinos agreeing that literature aimed at getting out their vote should feature pictures of Latinos alone, while 84 percent preferred images of a mixed group of voters.

But perhaps as much as anything, Latino pragmatism shows itself in the way the community reacts to political appeals. One of the biggest reasons Latinos are so much in play this fall is that so many Republicans are wooing them – campaigning in their neighborhoods, running targeted ads and simply paying them the respect of asking them directly for their votes. And if this year's candidates do well, others will follow.

The courtship by both parties can only intensify in coming elections. Democrats will try to hold Hispanic support by offering more services that appeal to working-class immigrants, like state-provided health insurance, college tuition subsidies and higher minimum-wage laws. And Republicans are sure to try – and could succeed with – platforms that stress new economic opportunity for students, first-time home-buyers and small businesses. Either way, Latino power will be a moderating influence as this bloc of voters judges candidates less on ideology than on what they actually deliver for the community.

Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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