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Bush Led GOP Inroads Among Latinos

by James E. Garcia

November 9, 2000
Copyright © 2000 All Rights Reserved.

By most standards, Texas Gov. George W. Bush lost to Vice President Al Gore by a landslide among Latino voters this year. But that's only half the story.

CNN and ABC exit polls found Latinos supported Gore 62 percent to 35 percent over Bush nationwide in Tuesday's presidential election. CBS polling shows Gore thrashed  Bush among Hispanics by a 66 percent to 29 percent margin.

While these are only preliminary figures, if they hold true some observers might conclude that Bush's efforts to reach out to Latinos failed miserably. 

Not so fast.

Remember that no Republican since Ronald Reagan's landslide victory over Democrat Walter Mondale has fared as well among Latino voters than Bush. In Texas, meanwhile, early polling shows that among Latinos, Gore won 54 percent and Bush 43 percent.

All in all, this is good news for the Republicans. No matter how the election ballot controversy in Florida turns out, Bush's "compassionate" conservative, bilingual style of stumping for Latino votes seemed to have worked.

Granted, losing by a 2-1 margin is not good. And Bush didn't hit the 40 percent mark among Latinos nationally that he had hoped to achieve. But he still did a lot better than his father, President George Bush, in 1992 or GOP candidate Bob Dole did 1996 against Democratic contenders. 

All of this is happening in the context of another major  trend. Census figures show that the number of voting-age Hispanics has jumped by 47 percent since 1990 -- most of that due to immigration and a higher-than-average birth rate.

Exit polls also show that Latinos accounted for 7 percent of the vote nationwide, up from about 5 percent in 1996. And there's no doubt that the Hispanic share of the total vote will keep growing. 

Latinos are nearly 12 percent of the U.S. population. In 50 years, one of four Americans will be of Hispanic descent. In California, that sort of population share has helped make possible the election of a Latino Lt. Governor, two Latino candidates for Los Angeles mayor, and a Latino Speaker of the Assembly. 

For the Democrats, these trends bring good news and bad news. The good news is that they still have a core of support that still includes a majority of Latinos. But it also suggests the community's votes are no longer gimmes.

Texas Democrats should really be worried. Bush campaign officials claimed that he had received almost 50 percent of the Latino vote in his lopsided  win  over Democrat Garry Mauro in 1998. Most experts believe Bush actually won 35 percent to 40 percent of Hispanic vote in 1998. 

The problem for Texas Democrats is that Bush has repeated his 1998 performance and shown a Republican can win at least 40 percent of the Latino vote. This doesn't bode well for Democratic plans to reclaim the governor's mansion or other powerful statewide offices.

California, meanwhile, remains a stronghold for Latino Democrats. Exit polling showed Gore picked up 67 percent of the Hispanic vote as compared to 28 percent support for Bush. This strongly suggests that the legacy of former California Gov. Pete Wilson lives on. Wilson is the guy who waged a culture war against Latino immigrants in order to win over white voters in his successful bid for reelection in 1994. 

To many Latinos, Wilson is the most hated man in America. Experts say Wilson's attacks on immigrants (which later spread to the U.S. Congress) is the biggest reason that 1 million more California Latinos have registered to vote in the last four years. The Wilson legacy did so much damage that a common campaign refrain among Republicans nationwide, and especially in California, was that Bush was "no Pete Wilson." 

But California Democrats are not invincible. Tuesday's election exposed a chink in the armor: Get a Latino Republican to run and you might have a viable candidate on your hands. 

Case in point: Rich Rodriguez. He ran for Congress in California's 20th District this year. The area is home to a large Latino community, many of them are working-class Democrats. Rodriguez eventually lost to incumbent Democrat Cal Dooley, who is white, but not by much. 

A former television news reporter, Rodriguez won about 45 percent of the vote. Not bad for his first run at public office. And not bad considering that the Republican Party didn't really begin paying attention to his race until late in the campaign.

In the end, Rodriguez pulled in only one-third of the Latino vote. But keep in mind that as a Republican he was forced to run in Wilson's shadow. 

That Rodriguez did so well means two things: Among  Latinos, the appeal of Latino Republicans is growing and the shadow of Wilson has begun to fade -- thanks, in large part, to Bush.

Garcia is editor and publisher of E-mail the writer at

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