GOP Losing Support With Hispanic Voters

Richard S. Dunham, Houston Chronicle, September 9, 2007

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The immigration debate is one reason why Sosa, 68, is supporting Democrat Bill Richardson, a Latino and New Mexico’s governor, for president. More important, his sense of betrayal is echoed in Hispanic communities across America. Latino support for President Bush and the Republican Party has plummeted this year as the debate over illegal immigration has driven Hispanic voters away from the GOP.

The freshest illustration of the trend: a pair of presidential election forums on issues of importance to Hispanics sponsored by Univision. The Democratic forum in Miami tonight has drawn RSVPs from all eight Democratic contenders. The Republican debate, scheduled for Sept. 16, has been postponed after organizers said only one candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, agreed to appear.

‘A complete collapse’

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Despite the president’s conciliatory tone, Bush is among those paying the price for the anti-Republican backlash. His job-approval rating among Latinos has plummeted to 20 percent from 35 percent since January, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of polling data for the Houston Chronicle. The drop is significantly sharper than among non-Hispanic whites and blacks.

“The trends are overwhelming,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “It’s been a complete collapse among Hispanics for the president.”

Exit polls from the 2006 election reflected a nascent anti-Republican trend. Latino support for GOP candidates dropped to 30 percent in 2006 from 40 percent in 2004, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Newer polls show that the trend has accelerated, particularly among younger voters. A survey of under-30 Americans for Democracy Corps, a Democratic group, found that Latinos preferred a Democrat for president in 2008 by a margin of 42 percentage points. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton led Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani by 30 points.

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Electoral consequences

Republican strategists, led by Sosa’s longtime friend Karl Rove, have warned that their party faces a precarious political future if harsh denunciations of illegal immigrants by some conservative firebrands alienate members of the fastest-growing voting bloc in Texas—and the rest of the country.

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The trend could have electoral consequences in 2008 and beyond. In the coming election, a change in the Hispanic vote could shift several key swing states to the Democrats, including Florida, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.

Though Texas is unlikely to leave the Republican presidential column this time, a pro-Democratic trend among Mexican-American voters could tip the balance of power in closely contested and minority-rich counties such as Harris. And it could create a competitive re-election race for Republican Sen. John Cornyn, possibly against state Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, a Latino and Afghanistan war veteran.

Political analysts and some Republicans say the GOP could lose a historic opportunity to win support from socially conservative older Hispanics and upwardly mobile younger Latinos. A decade ago in California, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson backed a proposition to deny government services to illegal immigrants—driving Latinos into the Democratic camp.

A call for sensitivity

Texas GOP operatives worry about the national trends because state Republicans may be hurt by the heated immigration rhetoric of non-Texans such as Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Duncan Hunter of California, both long-shot GOP presidential candidates.

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Diverse community

Still, there are some signs of hope for Republicans: Democrats have not yet closed the deal with Latino voters.

Hispanics “tend to be less connected to the Democratic Party” than past immigrant groups, said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg.

Many Latinos defy the ideological stereotypes of the two parties. Among older Latino voters, many are socially conservative but economically liberal. Upwardly mobile younger voters are “more liberal on social issues and more conservative on economics,” she said.

The diversity of the Latino community makes it hard to generalize. In Florida, for example, the Hispanic vote is trending Democratic as the number of non-Cuban Latinos, mainly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, overtakes the Republican-leaning Cuban-American population.

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