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No Special Agenda for Hispanics

By Gary Andres

Democratic strategists worry a lot these days about the Hispanic vote. Many believe Sen. John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election due in part to underperformance with these Americans. Four years ago, Mr. Kerry narrowly lost three states with large Hispanic populations. Had he won in Colorado (nine electoral votes), New Mexico (five) and Nevada (five), Mr. Kerry would be president today.

Republican performance among these Americans has not been static. Hispanic support for Republican presidential candidates declined during the late 1980s and the Clinton administration. Just under 40 percent of Hispanics voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. But Republican support then dipped in 1988, 1992 and 1996. In 2000, George W. Bush began to turn around Republican fortunes with this group, boosting results among Hispanics in 2000 compared with 1996. In 2004, he continued making inroads, garnering 40 percent of the Hispanic vote - the largest percentage for any Republican, according to Pew Research. Moreover, exit polls revealed Mr. Bush improved his margin in 2004 among these voters in every state with sizable Hispanic populations, including those mentioned above (with gains between 4 points and 12 points), as well as in Florida (+7), New York (+6) and New Jersey (+10).

One election cycle does not represent a trend. But the "Bush boost" among Hispanics in all of these key states had many Democratic operatives worried even before the 2008 cycle began.

Hillary Clinton was going to be the antidote to recent Republican gains, possibly returning the Democratic share of the Hispanic vote to more than 60 percent. She, like her husband, is extremely popular among Latinos. But Mrs. Clinton's demise in the primary puts a big wrinkle in that plan. Further, Barack Obama's lackluster support among Hispanics only adds to the party's mounting wall of worry. For example, according to a recent CNN report, Mrs. Clinton trounced Mr. Obama, 63 percent to 35 percent, among Hispanic voters on Super Tuesday.

What explains recent Republican improvement within this group? Last week, R. Michael Alvarez and Jonathan Nagler posted a thoughtful analysis, "Winning the Hispanic Vote in 2008" on that offers one hypothesis. Using exit polls from states with large Hispanic populations, the authors conclude that "compared to moral values and terrorism, traditional Democratic issues such as education and health care played relatively little role in 2004." As Messrs. Alvarez and Nagler note, much has changed since 2004. The ongoing war in Iraq, the housing bubble burst and a slowing economy provide new challenges and opportunities for both presidential candidates. The authors also caution Democrats not to put too much hope in the immigration issue as a way to court Hispanics. "McCain's past stance on immigration will make it difficult for Obama to easily draw clear distinctions on this issue, and may effectively reduce the prominence of the immigration issue in the general election," they write.

So how can Mr. Obama re-establish electoral dominance among Latinos? Messrs. Alvarez and Nagler believe it is through a "progressive message that articulates how the federal government will bring the nation economic growth, how it will provide affordable housing and credit to middle- and lower-income families, how it will deal with skyrocketing costs for food and energy, how it will make health care available and affordable, how it will make quality education a priority, how it can bring high quality jobs to all those who want them, and how it will end the war in Iraq."

A couple of points about this advice deserve mention. First, it is a message aimed at solving problems - an approach most Americans, not just Latinos, support - but their recommendation uses the word "how" seven times in one sentence. And that is the question. But Mr. Obama has not answered "how" he will address these issues.

Second, every American wants the issues they raise addressed in this election, not just Hispanics. So it is unclear how this guidance appeals to one ethnic group. These are all laudable goals and should attract accolades from Hispanics and others.

But a deeper political truth lies at the heart of their recommendations. Hispanics are no different than any other Americans. They do not want or need a "special agenda." They want a better life; they want opportunities for themselves and their kids; and, they want a competent federal government that solves problems. Hispanics and others are listening for proposals of "how" this can be done.

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