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The Big Enchilada: Special-Interest Groups: Democrats Are Courting Latinos. But Do They Really Know What They Want?
May 30, 2000
BOB EDWARDS, host: This is NPR's MORNING EDITION. I'm Bob Edwards.
When George W. Bush first was elected governor of Texas in 1994, he received just 28 percent of the Hispanic vote. Four years later, when he won re-election, Bush got nearly twice that percentage, more than any Texas Republican before him. In Texas and Florida, pollsters say it's possible Bush could win a majority of the Hispanic vote in November against Vice President Al Gore. But the Texas governor is not doing as well with Hispanics in other parts of the country. NPR's Wade Goodwyn traveled to the border town of Laredo to examine why Bush is doing so well with Hispanics in his home state.
WADE GOODWYN reporting:
Albert Gutierrez III is one of Laredo's up and coming young lawyers. Earlier this year, at the tender age of 31, Gutierrez ran for district attorney, and came within a few hundred votes of beating the long-time incumbent. Gutierrez considers himself a moderate conservative, and though he ran for district attorney as a Democrat, he says he's going to vote for Republican George Bush for president.
Mr. ALBERT GUTIERREZ III (Attorney): He just kind of gives that feeling of somebody that you can trust and somebody who's not afraid to sit down and talk to whoever the person is sitting in front of him. And I think Bill Clinton has some of those aspects, too.
GOODWYN: It's not so much Bush's stand on the issues as the way he stands on the issues that Gutierrez likes. For example, Gutierrez says he admired the way the Texas governor handled questions about whether he'd used drugs as a younger man.
Mr. GUTIERREZ: For example, when they were asking him about the cocaine use, I don't think it's relevant to the campaign. But, you know, he took a stand, he said, `Look, we're not going to talk about this. There's no need to talk about it. Let's just move forward.'
GOODWYN: With 180,000 people, Laredo is the second fastest growing city in the country behind Las Vegas.
(Soundbite of music)
GOODWYN: It is 95 percent Hispanic, and it has always been a stronghold for the Democrats . But the economy here is booming, and George Bush's rise in popularity has paralleled the rise in the standard of living. But it is Bush's style and personality that Hispanics in Laredo mention first. And his family is also important here. The former president and first lady are generally admired, especially Barbara Bush. And it is not lost on people in Laredo that Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, is married to Columba, who hails from Mexico City. When Hispanics talk about what they like about Bush, Columba's name often comes up. Norma Benevides(ph) is a retired high school teacher.
Ms. NORMA BENEVIDES: I was fortune enough to meet Mrs. Bush, his mother, and she was with Columba when they came here to Laredo. They were campaigning for George Bush Sr. And to me the fact that they have somebody in their own family that is Latino tells me a lot about all the Bushes.
GOODWYN: Norma Benevides, who's in her 70s, says her support for Bush is, in some ways, a reaction to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. She sees Bush as a moral family man. But when Benevides is asked what she likes about Bush's record during his six years as Texas governor, she's unsure.
Mr. BENEVIDES: I can't pick one particular thing, except that things have gone well for the state and that he has been able to work with the opposition, although right now I can't think of any one specific thing that he has done.
GOODWYN: If Bush's record isn't all that clear to many Hispanics, there is a widespread perception here that Bush is not an anti-Latino Republican. In 1994, the state of California passed Proposition 187, which, among other things, closed the public school system to children of illegal aliens. Four years later, California killed its bilingual education programs. Texas Hispanics were frightened by the climate in California and the politics of Republican Governor Pete Wilson. But in Texas, Bush took a different approach. Andy Hernandez teaches at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, and is the co-author of the Almanac of Latino Politics(ph).
Mr. ANDY HERNANDEZ (Co-author, Almanac of Latino Politics): And I think that George Bush would say, `We're not going to do that here. We don't believe in that.' And he was, in a sense, very complimentary about Mexico and our relationship with them. I think that that made a big difference. I think Latinos rewarded a Republican moderate who was not against them.
GOODWYN: When Bush ran for re-election as governor in 1998, he made it a goal to capture more of the Hispanic vote than any previous Republican in state history. Lionel Sosa was responsible for Bush's media outreach to Latinos . Sosa tells the story of a strategy meeting early in the campaign. When the conversation turned to how much money should be spent targeting Hispanics, Sosa says Bush leaned across the table and said, `If you tell me you need $2 million to do the job, I'll give you four million. If you say you need four million, I'll give you eight.'
Mr. LIONEL SOSA: Of course the staff would say, `Whoa, whoa, Governor, don't let Lionel take all of the money,' and all of that kind of stuff. And we all had a big laugh and everything, but he was serious about it. And that kind of commitment is a commitment that comes only from the candidate. That commitment does not come from staff. That commitment does not come from advisers.
GOODWYN: Sosa ended up spending $6 million on Hispanic outreach alone, and he produced a TV spot that is widely regarded as having had a profound impact on the election. The TV spot features popular Tejano singer Emilio. At the time Emilio had a huge hit with his song "Juntos", which means together. The song is a beautiful and moving ballad from a husband to his wife about how they will always be together. Only the Bush campaign rewrote the lyrics to be about Bush and the Hispanic community.
(Soundbite from advertisement featuring Emilio singing in Spanish)
GOODWYN:As Emilio sings, Bush is shown in San Antonio walking in a Mexican Independence Day parade. In quick succession, we see pictures of beautiful Hispanic children dressed in parade costumes. That fades to a shot of Bush with his arm around an elderly Hispanic man, then a slow pan of young Latino women standing at attention in military dress whites. All the while Emilio is singing about the value of hard work, of loyalty to family and of working together to get ahead. The TV spot conveyed the message that Bush likes Hispanic people and respects Hispanic values. The governor of Texas explains what he was hoping to achieve.
Governor GEORGE W. BUSH (Republican Presidential Candidate): And I wanted to get a message out to the people of my state that even though I bore the Republican label I cared a lot about the Hispanic population, and that the message I want to talk about, (Spanish spoken), together we can--and I was thinking about reaching out and saying, `Texas belongs to you as much as it belongs to me.'
GOODWYN: It worked. Estimates of Bush's share of the Hispanic vote in 1998 ran as high as 49 percent, a new Republican record. Bush says he understands that Hispanics are the future.
Gov. BUSH: Our population is changing. The demographics of Texas are becoming more Hispanic every year. And it's so important to make sure that we as a state welcome folks and have policies in place that encourage people to be able to realize that--Texas in the American Dream.
GOODWYN: While Bush is expected to do well his Hispanics in Texas and Florida, that's not so true in California, Arizona, New Mexico and New York. In those states Bush's Hispanic numbers are only in the 20s. But if Bush can close the gap in California over the next five months, the race could turn on how well Bush does in the Hispanic community.
Gov. BUSH: It is exactly the challenge I face, and that is to convince Hispanics in states other than Texas and Florida, one, that I have a heart; two, that my vision includes them. And I'm beginning to make progress in a state like California. Almost every visit that I make in California is one where I reach out to Hispanic voters. I want to be seen with Hispanic children. I want people to know that I understand the culture.
GOODWYN: Already Loinel Sosa, Bush's clever media adviser, is producing a new set of TV spots. The ads will feature Bush's 24-year-old nephew, the son of Jeb and Columba. The young man who recently graduated from Rice University will describe on camera how he knows what it's like to be young and Latino in America. And then he'll say, `And like my grandfather and my uncle in Texas, my name is George Bush.' Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Laredo.
May 27, 2000
RICKY MARTIN'S hips and Jennifer Lopez's haunches have done more to raise temperatures around America this past year than global warming. Popular culture embraces all things Latino, from callipygian pop stars to taco-touting chihuahuas. Given all that, it was inevitable that Latinos would become a politically powerful group.
Whether they are an interest group is another matter, and depends on where you sit. The two main political parties certainly believe they are a block to be wooed and won. Latinos themselves are less sure about it. They have seldom played the ethnic card in politics, not least because they are a heterogeneous lot united mostly by language. Like most voters, their interests stem mostly from where they live and how much money they make, not from their skin or culture.
The oddity of their position becomes clear by contrast with the pressure groups around them. Most of these - from the National Rifle Association to the teachers' unions - derive their power from organisation, money, loyalty and a clear agenda. Latinos retain a hold over the Democratic Party without any of these things. They give precious little money, and vote relatively seldom; virtually every senior Democrat entertains some doubts about their long-term loyalty, and their agenda is still relatively vague. The result: things are offered almost before they are demanded.
So far, it seems to be working. The Democrats got around 70% of the Latino vote in the 1996 election. Bill Clinton even managed to win 65% of Latinos earning more than Dollars 75,000 a year. Virtually all the elected Latinos outside Miami are Democrats . The few Latino organisations that exist tend to have a Democratic bias, though they are far less active than black political groups. The arrival of Latinos has helped swing several congressional seats to the party.
So why pay so much attention? One reason is demographics. The 32m Latinos in the United States make up 11.7% of its population. Soon Latinos , whose numbers have swelled by a third since 1990, will overtake blacks to be America's largest minority. Around a third of the Latinos are not yet citizens of the United States, and of those who are, 40% are too young to vote. Even among those eligible to vote, registration still lags, so that Latinos cast only 5% of the votes in the 1996 election (up from 3.7% in 1992), and are expected to cast about 7% this year.
Another reason is fear. Democrats remember the swing to Ronald Reagan in 1980 among traditionally Democratic Irish, Italian and Polish Roman Catholics. Republicans are fond of saying that Latinos are "natural Republicans" on the strength of their religiously based social conservatism. They have done little so far to awaken them nationally to their supposed nature, although there are some large pockets of achievement. George W. Bush has regularly picked up 40% of the Latino vote as the group's choice of presidential candidate, thanks to his rapport with them in Texas. His governor-brother Jeb, a fluent Spanish-speaker with a Mexican wife, does even better among Latinos in Florida with a potent blend of social conservatism and concern for the poor.
More for their money
Parties usually deal with interest groups by giving them what they want in exchange for money and votes. The problem with Latinos is that their interests do not make up a coherent set of demands. As a result, recent attempts by Democrats to shore up their support among Latinos have had a hit-and-miss feel. When Al Gore, who from time to time breaks into patchy Spanish, jumped into the argument over Elian Gonzalez in a bid to appeal to Florida's Cuban-Americans, he did himself harm with Latinos elsewhere, who favoured returning the boy to Cuba.
The nearest thing to an issue among Latinos is their support for liberal immigration policies. The most spectacular evidence of this is the disastrous damage the Republican Party did to itself in California in 1994 with its support of Proposition 187. This ballot measure, which passed into law, withdrew social services from illegal immigrants in the state, the bulk of whom were Latinos . The support the measure received from Pete Wilson, then the Republican governor of California, helped to sink the party in the polls, leaving all the senior offices in California today in Democratic hands. Mr Bush does not talk much about Mr Wilson.
The Democrats assiduously exploit the issue. Mr Gore's announcement in March that the administration is proposing an amnesty for immigrants who came illegally to America before 1986 got wide coverage in the Spanish-language media. Leading Democrats also successfully lobbied the AFL-CIO to change its policy on immigration. The trade-union movement, until recently narrow-eyed about foreigners of any sort taking its members' jobs, has now become much more sympathetic to Latinos , who make up an increasing number of those members. A much-publicised strike by caretakers in Los Angeles is led by a union almost entirely composed of recent Latino immigrants.
Another issue that is looming large on the Latino agenda is the census. The Mexican-American Legal Defence and Education Fund, alongside the Democrats but not the Republicans, has lobbied for having a statistically estimated adjustment in the census, to take account of the many poor, migrant, homeless and illegal people whom the census may miss. The idea is to boost the number of congressional seats for Latino areas. The parties' positions are a mark of everyone's confidence that such seats will be won by Democrats .
Chris Garcia, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico, argues that Latino votes will depend most heavily on health care, education and welfare services. All are traditional Democratic issues, but in concentrating on them Latinos are following the pattern of earlier immigrants: they are adopting middle-class American patterns of political behaviour, rather than putting their ethnic identity above everything else. And this is the way they have always behaved. In political terms, this special-interest group is neither special, nor one interest. That will be the Republicans' opportunity.
For the Democrats , we have "el vice presidente Al Gore," as the Spanish-language part of his Web site calls him, fighting hard for "cuidado de salud" (that's health care, for you gringos). He has addressed Latino audiences in Los Angeles, shouting "Si se puede!" (It can be done!). He has done ads in Spanish for radio and TV, and he's said to be pondering a Hispanic running mate... Por los demócratas tenemos al "vice presidente Al Gore", como su sitio en Internet en español es muy visitado, luchando duro por el "cuidado de salud" (traducido para ustedes gringos health care), ha dirigido audiencias latinas en los Angeles, exclamando a gritos "¡Si se puede!" (¡Se puede hacer!); además ha realizado anuncios publicitarios en español por radio y televisión, y se le ha pedido que sea un hispano el que lo acompañe en la carrera por presidente...
For the Democrats , we have "el vice presidente Al Gore," as the Spanish-language part of his Web site calls him, fighting hard for "cuidado de salud" (that's health care, for you gringos). He has addressed Latino audiences in Los Angeles, shouting "Si se puede!" (It can be done!). He has done ads in Spanish for radio and TV, and he's said to be pondering a Hispanic running mate...
Por los demócratas tenemos al "vice presidente Al Gore", como su sitio en Internet en español es muy visitado, luchando duro por el "cuidado de salud" (traducido para ustedes gringos health care), ha dirigido audiencias latinas en los Angeles, exclamando a gritos "¡Si se puede!" (¡Se puede hacer!); además ha realizado anuncios publicitarios en español por radio y televisión, y se le ha pedido que sea un hispano el que lo acompañe en la carrera por presidente...
For the Republicans, we have "el gobernador George W. Bush," who recently ate a taco at Fiesta Imperiale in California, where he also celebrated Cinco de Mayo and spoke Spanish (his is better than Gore's) with the crowd. Some of his campaign events have featured mariachi music, he's taped a town meeting for Spanish language TV and he put out an ad declaring that he is "un hombre de familia" with "valores conservadores" (read that "family man with conservative values"). He named a Hispanic man to a topfundraising job and visited a Latino community center in Ohio called El Barrio.
Perhaps you are wondering what this is all about. Perhaps you want to ask: Que pasa, Alberto y Jorge?
This is the year of the Latino voter, some members of the press corps tell us, and the Gore and Bush campaigns have been wooing the Latino vote aggressively. There's a good reason for this: Latinos are a large and expanding part of the electorate. In various congressional and gubernatorial races this fall, they could be the decisive factor. So can we expect them to play a similarly influential role in the 2000 presidential election?
In the states where Latino voters have become powerful, the presidential race isn't much of a contest. And in the states where there's a contest, there aren't many Latino voters. The effort to recruit them this year, in fact, has more to do with the overall image of tolerance and sensitivity that candidates want to convey than it does with making direct appeals to Latinos .
This is not to diminish the growing importance of Hispanics in politics. In some future presidential election--perhaps even the next one--they will be a decisive factor. Four years ago, Latinos comprised only 5 percent of the electorate; this year, the figure is expected to be 8 percent.
They are also, to some extent, up for grabs. Democrats have won roughly two-thirds of the Latino vote in recent years and have a 3-to-1 advantage in party identity. But many Latinos , particularly the most assimilated, tend to have conservative social positions that favor Republican policies. Bush, who won an impressive 49 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 1998 Texas gubernatorial race, has been holding his own nationally among this group in some recent polls.
But does it matter?
Both sides certainly make it seem that way. Bush, for example, has taken pains to show that he disapproves of the anti-immigrant policies of former California governor Pete Wilson, a fellow Republican. "El gobernador Bush es una nueva clase de republicano," says a press release from his campaign.
In recent weeks, Bush assembled Latino leaders in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley and attended a U.S.-Mexico Foundation breakfast in San Diego. During a stop in Santa Ana, Calif., he called himself "Jorge" and attended a Catholic Mass, although he's a Methodist. In his first foreign trip as a candidate, he ventured a few hundred yards into Mexico to meet with that country's president. Bush also worked the crowd at the National Hispanic Women's Conference, and he visited Latino schools in Sacramento. Bushhas made a practice of answering at least one question in Spanish at his news conferences.
Gore, fearing an intrusion by Bush into this traditionally Democratic constituency, has battled back with his own trip to a largely Hispanic school in California. He spoke in Spanish to striking janitors in Los Angeles. The vice president's Hispanic supporters have tried to undercut Bush in the Latino community. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said, for example: "George W. Bush's attempt to woo Hispanic voters with photo opportunities and broken Spanish doesn't make up for his failing positions on theissues."
Still, some opinion makers and political reporters have been promoting the idea that the Hispanic vote is the story of Campaign 2000. "In a presidential race as tight as this one is shaping up to be, Latinos could prove to be crucial," declared the Dallas Morning News, which also carried an essay that wondered: "Are Latino voters the 'soccer moms' of the 2000 election?" CNN sees "new evidence that Latinos in the Golden State are enhancing their political clout," while the Associated Press tells us that "Hispanics in middle America may be a deciding factor" in the presidential election.
Here's the logic: If Bush can push his share of the Latino vote from the 30 percent that Bob Dole got to 50 percent, he gains some 1.6 percentage points nationally, which is a significant gain in a close race. But Bush isn't likely to duplicate his Texas success--that was a landslide in which he dominated virtually all demographics. In a poll conducted by the online political site Voter.com, Bush trailed Gore among Latinos by 12 percentage points this month; two months earlier, Bush led Gore by 6 points, which indicates "some core Hispanic constituencies are going home" to the Democratic Party, observed Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster.
The real obstacle to Latino clout this particular year is the electoral college. Hispanic voters are a significant force in four critical states--New York (7 percent of the electorate there), California (11 percent), Texas (17 percent) and Florida (12 percent)--but none of these states is truly in play. Barring a national landslide, which neither side expects, California and New York should go to Gore, and Texas and Florida--home of the conservatively inclined Cuban community--should go to Bush.
There are scenarios where the Latino vote could be crucial. If third-party candidate Ralph Nader catches fire in California, for example, he would cut into Gore's support and give Bush a chance there, making the Latino vote significant. But barring such a development, the best that Republicans can hope for in California is that small gains among Latinos will make the race close enough to distract Gore from more contested states such as Michigan.
Latinos could affect the outcome in a couple of battleground states, such as heavily Latino Arizona, but even Democratic strategists such as Mark Gersh say the state is almost certain to go Republican in a close election. New Mexico is truly up for grabs--and it has a 28 percent Latino voting roll. But, with 5 electoral votes, compared with Ohio's 21, Illinois' 22 and Pennsylvania's 23, it doesn't count enough for either side to care much.
Both sides know the election comes down to a surprisingly small collection of states--particularly Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio--that have tiny Hispanic populations. New Jersey has the largest Latino population of these states--and even there, only 4 percent of the electorate was Hispanic in 1996, which translates to a likely 175,000 Hispanic votes this time. The Democrats think their man can win New Jersey by as much as 13 percent, which translates to 500,000 votes. For Latinos to make a dent in that, these mostly Democratic voters would all have to vote for Bush--three times apiece.
So if the Latino vote isn't likely to decide the 2000 election, why do both sides continue to court it so intently? Part of the reason is a long-term strategy to secure Latinos for future elections. But a bigger part is the parties' efforts to improve their appeal to suburban swing voters by projecting an image of inclusion. "Whites, liberals, the gay vote, upper income, the Jewish vote--all of those people are heavily influenced by a candidate's broad sense of tolerance," GOP pollster Bill McInturffsays.
So the next time you see Bush or Gore speaking Spanish to janitors in East L.A., remember this: He's really talking to soccer moms in Farmington Hills, Mich.