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Bush Is Making Hispanic Inroads But Does A Dead End Lie Ahead?


28 February 2004
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The last election gave Republicans lots to cheer. Near the top of the list was their strong showing among Latinos, the nation's fastest growing minority.

Initial exit polls showed President Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote, a record for a Republican.

Hopes of winning over most Hispanic voters have since dimmed. Experts now say the 44% figure is off. Bush likely won 38%-40%.

But that's up about 4 points from 2000 and the GOP's best showing since Reagan's 1984 landslide.

"We basically doubled our percentage of the Hispanic vote" from 1996, said Raul Damas, the Republican National Committee's grass-roots director.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus warned Democratic leaders in a Dec. 9 letter that they must do more to win back Latino votes.

"If recent trends hold, several current Democratic strongholds will soon become swing states," it said.

What's noteworthy is how the GOP gained ground. It made direct appeals to Hispanics, but mostly avoided immigration.

"There were two ads that did endorse the Bush immigration policy, but the overwhelming preponderance was about other subjects altogether," said Richard Nadler, president of America's Majority, a conservative group involved in Hispanic outreach.

Those ads focused on conservative issues like school choice, abortion, traditional marriage and entrepreneurship.

Clarissa Martinez, director of civic engagement for the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic advocacy group, echoed that view. She said many Hispanic-specific issues were "off the table."

"Bush managed to establish a closer connection with the Latino community and to really argue he was a better leader on those issues that remained on the table," Martinez said.

Where immigration was an issue, Bush stayed mum. He didn't weigh in on Arizona's Prop. 200, which denies some state services to illegal immigrants. It won 56% to 44%, with 47% of Hispanics saying yes. Bush got 43% to 47% of the state's Latinos.

Overall, Bush nearly doubled Bob Dole's 1996 Hispanic vote of 21%. President George H.W. Bush won 34% in 1988 and 25% in 1992.

Republicans still trail Democrats among Latinos. By about 2-1, they identify as Democrats. But Bush's strong showing indicates plenty of Hispanics are swing voters.

And Hispanic voters are sure to grow. There were at least 7.5 million in 2004, up 27% from 2000.

Bush has tried hard to woo them. Earlier in 2004 he proposed an immigrant guest-worker program.

The proposal swiftly died in Congress amid a GOP backlash.

Republicans tried other outreach. Nadler says Bush got 47% of Latinos in six swing states — Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Wisconsin — where independent conservative groups aggressively lobbied them.

"When you bother to run on conservative issues . . . these folks respond quite well," Nadler said.

Critics See No Latino Shift

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors immigration curbs, is skeptical. He says the bigger Latino take tracks with Bush's rise in the popular vote and is about equal to Reagan's mark.

"Republicans have generally gotten a third to a quarter of the Hispanic vote," he said. Bush's 2004 showing "might well be a ceiling."

It's also not clear if the election signaled a real GOP tilt. Polling data are scarce, but many experts suspect Bush's Hispanic support is stronger than the party's.

Liberal commentators downplay Bush's increase.

"Bush made gains among Hispanics, as he did among most voter groups, but not a breakthrough," pollster Ruy Teixeira, who co-authored "The Emerging Democratic Majority," wrote in his blog.

It's "no cause for complacency among Democrats," he added. "But there is no reason to panic."

Still, Bush has stepped up efforts to court Hispanics. He's nominated White House lawyer Alberto Gonzales for attorney general and Kellogg CEO Carlos Gutierrez as commerce secretary.

Bush has signaled he'll revive his guest-worker plan. He also wants more green cards for permanent U.S. residence.

Pro- and anti-immigration forces in Congress are making noise. Nadler said immigration isn't the "be-all and end-all" of wooing Hispanics. But they can't be ignored.

"Whatever you think of immigration, there are still 7.5 million Hispanic voters. It is insanity . . . to ignore them," he said.

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