Like no Republican before him, George W. Bush drew Hispanics to the GOP.
In the 2004 election, at least 40% of the voters in the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority group backed Bush, double the share of Hispanics who had supported Republican Bob Dole eight years earlier. But the inroads Bush made are vanishing.
The chief beneficiary for 2008 so far is Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton.
A new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll indicates that Hispanics, by nearly 3 to 1, say they’re Democrats or lean that way. Of those, 59% support the New York senator over her presidential rivals—her strongest showing among any major demographic group and a huge potential asset for early contests in Nevada, Florida, California and other states with large Hispanic populations.
One big factor behind the flight from the GOP: a heated debate over immigration in which congressional Republicans’ remarks on illegal immigrants have offended many Hispanic voters. The fallout from that battle, shifting Latino loyalties and a changing political calendar have scrambled political calculations made about Hispanics after the last presidential election—and raised the stakes for their role in choosing the Democratic nominee for the next one.
Even though the presidential candidates are frantically raising money in the final days before the end of the month—the second-quarter fundraising totals are seen as benchmarks for their standing—all the Democratic contenders accepted invitations to address NALEO, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. They will speak to the group’s convention in Orlando on Saturday.
In a sign of how GOP priorities have changed since President Bush’s careful cultivation of Hispanic voters, all the Republican candidates declined invitations to join a similar forum there Friday, citing scheduling conflicts.
By 2005, nearly one-third of Hispanics called themselves Republicans or leaned that way.
“It was the family values thing” that persuaded some of her Hispanic friends and co-workers to vote Republican in 2004, says Millie Linares, 47. The middle school librarian was waiting in San Antonio’s muggy heat Sunday for a rally featuring Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama.
Hispanics will be more wary in 2008, predicts her sister, Gilda Lopez, 56, a speech pathologist and reliable Democrat. With a crisis in Iraq and questions at home about the GOP’s attitudes toward Hispanics, she says, “I cannot understand how a Hispanic person could vote Republican.”
The new survey finds fewer who say they will. Only 11% of Hispanics now identify themselves as Republicans, down from 19% in 2005, while the proportion who call themselves Democrats has jumped to 42% from 33%.
Including independents who “lean” to one party or the other, Democrats lead Republicans among Hispanics 58% to 20%.
In a matchup between the candidates who lead in national polls, Hispanics overwhelmingly support Clinton over Republican Rudy Giuliani, 66% to 27%.
Hispanics’ importance rising
Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, general chairman of the Republican National Committee, says there is time for the eventual GOP nominee to recover among Hispanic voters next year—and that doing so is becoming increasingly critical. Hispanics represented 1 in 8 U.S. residents in 2000 but are projected to be 1 in 4 by 2050.
In part, Clinton’s strength among Hispanics reflects the fact that she is the best-known candidate. Many Hispanics also have lingering affection for her husband, who got 62% of the Latino vote in the 1992 presidential election and 72% when he was re-elected in 1996.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the son of a Mexican mother and American father, also sees Hispanic support as “a critical part of his constituency,” campaign manager Dave Contarino says.
But Richardson still has to introduce himself. Six in 10 Hispanics polled say they’ve never heard of the former congressman and Cabinet member, the first Hispanic to seek the Democratic presidential nomination.
Obama, meanwhile, is playing catch-up. Nearly half of Hispanics nationwide say they’ve never heard of the Illinois senator. Among Hispanic Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 13% support him. That’s his weakest standing among any major demographic group, according to an analysis of combined USA TODAY/Gallup Polls taken this year.
Some Republicans reach out
A month after the 2004 election, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were so concerned about erosion among once-solidly Democratic Hispanics to Bush that they sent a letter to the Democratic National Committee warning that Republicans were “clearly winning the battle for Hispanic voters.”
That was then.
Now, the same angst over the Iraq war and the economy that has cost Bush support among independent voters generally also has dismayed Latinos. Bush’s job-approval rating among Hispanics is 29%, lower than his 32% rating overall.
Some Hispanics have been alarmed and offended by the harsh rhetoric of some congressional Republicans in the immigration debate and the opposition by most of the GOP presidential field to designing a path to legal status for illegal immigrants now in the USA.
Some GOP candidates are trying to reach out to Hispanic voters.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, an architect of the Senate’s immigration bill, in the last GOP debate emotionally extolled the bravery and sacrifices of Hispanic veterans in the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney began airing Spanish-language TV ads in South Florida in March and has posted a video on his campaign website of son Craig touting “mi papa” in Spanish.
With the exception of McCain, however, the major Republican presidential contenders have been more concerned about appealing to tough-on-immigration conservatives who are likely to be important in the GOP primaries than to Hispanics who are swing voters.
Former New York mayor Giuliani dismisses the immigration bill as a “typical Washington mess.” Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo is basing his long-shot campaign on fervent opposition to illegal immigration.
Still, in the end, many Hispanics are more likely to be swayed by a personal connection with a candidate than by ideology, Martinez says. That could create an opening for a Republican nominee.
Here today, where tomorrow?
Even if Democrats win back Hispanic voters in 2008, Latinos aren’t likely to become the sort of reliable Democratic partisans that, say, African-Americans are.
Hispanics are twice as likely as non-Hispanics to describe themselves as independents who don’t “lean” to either party.
And while the GOP share of Hispanic votes overall fell sharply in the 2006 elections, some Republican candidates did well. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger carried 39% of Hispanic votes in his re-election race in California, for instance. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison won 44% for hers in Texas.