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McCain, GOP Face Hispanic Tipping Point

By Reid Wilson

As the largest minority group in the United States, Hispanics are finding their political sea legs in a year in which their votes could, and likely will, swing the presidential election. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have courted perhaps this most diverse group of minorities, and both have obstacles to overcome before claiming an historically significant advantage. McCain, though, is uniquely positioned to outperform his party, and few groups will be so crucial to his campaign's success or failure.

In the past eight years, Hispanic voters have largely sided with Democrats, though not as much as other minority groups. In 2000, Al Gore won more than 60% of the Hispanic vote, versus roughly 35% of for President Bush. In 2004, Hispanics once again favored the Democrat,John Kerry, over President Bush, though by a slimmer margin of roughly 55 to 40. By 2006, however, after a contentious debate on comprehensive immigration in which the Republican-controlled House hewed to a conservative, enforcement first approach, just 30% of Hispanics voted Republican in Congressional elections, while Democrats raked in 69% of the vote.

Now, say Republican strategists aligned with and independent of the McCain campaign, the Arizona Senator is positioned like no other member of their party would have been to woo Hispanic voters back into the GOP fold. "In terms of brand name, just like with general markets, the Republican brand in Hispanic circles isn't worth a lot right now," said Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist not involved in the campaign. But there's hope: "If you get candidates who engage the Hispanic community and are competitive, they can earn up to 50% and more" of the Hispanic vote, she said, pointing to Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Florida Governor Charlie Crist and, most notably, McCain.

Being from Arizona, where a significant 25% of the population is of Hispanic heritage, McCain has maintained good relations with the community -- and it's paid off: In his 2004 re-election campaign against an under-funded Democrat, McCain won 74% of the Hispanic vote, just three points below the 77% he won statewide.

McCain has always favored a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, and last summer his co-sponsorship of a prominent bill with Senator Ted Kennedy on the issue nearly cost him any chance he had at the Republican nomination. Since then, McCain has said that while he still believes other aspects of immigration policy need reforming, he recognizes the need to prove to the public that the government will make good on its promise to enforce the border - which McCain says he'll achieve by asking border-state governors to complete a certification process.

Nationally, McCain will have work to do in convincing Latinos to join him. "Do [Hispanics] know John McCain? The answer is, well, not yet," said Lionel Sosa, a Republican ad maker who has already cut advertisements for McCain in advance of the general election.

To make himself known, most strategists agreed, McCain will need to focus on a common value system. "The major theme is common values, common conservative values," Sosa said. "It's shared values, and it's promoting those shared values," said Wes Gullett, an Arizona Republican strategist who has worked specifically on winning Hispanic votes. "Unfortunately, the Republican Party has gotten into the position of being too easily framed as the party that's anti-immigrant, and that creates a problem with our messaging and our position with Latinos generally." From the economy to the war in Iraq, Hispanic voters largely find the same issues crucial as do the rest of the electorate, with the notable exception being education. "There's two big dreams in the Hispanic family household. One is to earn a college education ... and the other is to own a home," Sanchez said. "Education is seen as the really true sign of American success, of living the American dream."

Still, thanks to the 2006 immigration debates, led by Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the issue still menacingly hangs over the prospects of all Republicans attracting Hispanic voters. The balancing act comes when a candidate tries not to alienate core conservatives, many of whom have registered disgust with the lack of action on the issue by Republicans. Those conservatives "can have all they want, such as border security, such as law and order, but it needs to be done with a balance to the sensitivity of the workers and their families," Sosa said. "There is no reason to be unfriendly."

Understanding that balance hasn't happened in the past two decades, and consequently, what were once huge Hispanic majorities for Ronald Reagan turned into a Democratic advantage. "Reagan was the last Republican that understood immigration," Gullett said. "We like to talk like Ronald Reagan, but we don't like to act like Ronald Reagan. We need to act like Ronald Reagan and believe in the big tent." Should McCain choose to walk the same tightrope Reagan did, he could be successful. "He has a better record on immigration than either Hillary [Clinton] or Obama. He was out there first," Sosa said.

But one factor that could hamper McCain's efforts is that Hispanic voters are incredibly young for a demographic group: one-third of all Hispanic voters are between the ages of 18 and 29, said Mark Lopez, associate director of the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center. Younger voters so far this year have flocked to Obama in record numbers.

Obama, though, had serious problems with Hispanic voters during the primary season, as rival Hillary Clinton took big majorities in every state in which Hispanic voters played a prominent role. But the same thing might not happen in November. Though some have suggested an inherent tension between the Hispanic and African American communities, poll numbers don't necessarily bear that out. A summary of Gallup daily tracking polls from May shows Obama winning 62% of the Hispanic vote, with McCain getting just 29%. An NBC/WSJ survey released last night that included an oversample of Hispanics produced an identical result: Obama 62, McCain 28.

The issue between the two communities, most agreed, is economic instead of racial. "There's competition for jobs, there's competition for attention," Sosa said. "It is not something that cannot be dealt with or it is not something that is a serious problem. It's a natural competition."

In fact, some Republicans are worried that Obama's approach to the Hispanic vote is working, unlike previous Democratic outreach attempts. "Barack Obama's a smart man, and he's going to be doing a lot of smart things," Sosa continued. "Gore did almost nothing. Kerry did absolutely nothing, so that anything we did, or that George Bush did, stood out, because there was virtually nothing happening on the other side."

Performance among Hispanic voters will be critical for both candidates, as Hispanics have already showed a much higher turnout this year than in years past. Some see the damage to the Republican brand among Hispanics as reversable, but that reversal needs to happen soon, as a generation of new voters become used to voting for Democrats. The healing has to start soon: "As Republicans, as we have in the past, [we] have a great opportunity to welcome the fastest-growing group in America into the tent," said Gullett. "And if we don't do that, we're nuts."

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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