Winning Over Latino Voters: Relationships Are Key

Winning Over Latino Voters: Relationships Are Key

By Carl M. Cannon - August 18, 2014

The first of a five-part special report, "Hispanic Voters: Trends and Opportunities," running this week and sponsored by Univision.

Jacqueline Kennedy was fluent in Spanish (and Italian and French), linguistic talents that were put to good use by her husband’s 1960 presidential campaign. The glamorous young wife of Sen. John F. Kennedy narrated an ad on Spanish-language broadcast outlets.

In a world threatened by communism, she explained, it was necessary to have a leader in the White House capable of guiding the nation’s destiny “con una mano firme”—with a firm hand. That man, 31-year-old Jackie Kennedy asserted, was “mi esposo.” She also promised that her husband would watch over those in American society “in need of the protection of a humanitarian government.” Jackie ended her brief appeal with a smile and the words “Que viva Kennedy!

This outreach paid off. It’s hard to say that a demographic cohort that was then only 3 percent of the electorate determined the outcome of the election, but the 1960 race was a very close one—it came down to Illinois and Texas—and the Democratic ticket that included Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson carried the Mexican-American vote in the Lone Star State overwhelmingly over Richard Nixon.

Five and a half decades ago, few party professionals were yet alluding to Hispanics as the “sleeping giant” of American electoral politics. Most didn’t really talk about Hispanics at all. The post-Castro Cuban migration to South Florida had not yet occurred, and no one imagined the specter of tens of thousands of Central American children amassed at the southern border. Puerto Rican voters were concentrated mainly in New York City and a few other East Coast metropolitan areas.

Today, all that has changed. The Hispanic vote is important in nearly every swing state in the country now, and is growing in places where you couldn’t even find edible Mexican food a few years ago. The state with the fastest-growing Latino population is North Carolina. In 2014, the Hispanic vote there, and in other Southern states, including Georgia, may determine the makeup of the U.S. Senate. And it is likely to be dispositive in presidential elections from now on.

Some 12.5 million Hispanics voted in 2012. The Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project predicts this number will double by 2030 when—who knows?—perhaps Chelsea Clinton will be preparing for a 2032 face-off against George P. Bush. In such a match-up, George P. might do much better in Hispanic precincts than any of today’s Republicans. For starters, his mother was born in Mexico; for another, his uncle, George W. Bush, took 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.

The former Texas governor did it the old-fashioned way: with outreach to the community, with a “compassionate conservative” approach on immigration policy, by stressing other issues that matter to Latinos—and by speaking Spanish when it was appropriate. Dubya’s Spanish isn’t as good as Jackie Kennedy’s. But it was good enough. That 40 percent Bush earned in 2004 was the highest percentage ever attained by a GOP presidential candidate. One burning question in American politics is whether any Republican will ever do it again.


The GOP’s history with Hispanics—both good and bad—goes back a while. Let’s start with the positive: The first Latino U.S. senator, Mexican-born Octaviano Ambrosio Larrazolo, was a Republican who broke with the Democratic Party over the issue of civil rights. Likewise, the first Latino named to a presidential cabinet, Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos, served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. 

“I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here even though some time back they may have entered illegally,” Ronald Reagan said while debating Walter Mondale in 1984. After he won re-election in a landslide, Reagan backed up these words with deeds. He signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that granted citizenship to some 2.7 million people, most of them Mexican-Americans.

“Future generations of Americans,” Reagan said at the signing ceremony, “will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship.”

Yet a strain of nativism runs through Republican political history, too. During the Eisenhower administration—when Nixon was vice president—the U.S. Immigration Service, as it was then called, launched “Operation Wetback,” in which some 2 million Hispanics, most of them Mexican, were deported or pressured to leave the country.

This probably hurt Nixon in 1960, and it formed the backdrop for those Jackie Kennedy TV and radio spots. The point is that the Republican Party’s problems with Hispanics didn’t begin in 2012, when GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney offered up “self-deportation” as the solution to the nation’s immigration problems—or when he passed up a chance to make history by not picking Marco Rubio, Susana Martinez, or another Hispanic as a running mate.

Nor did they start in 2009, when President Obama didn’t miss his historic chance: He appointed Sonia Sotomayor, a self-described “wise Latina,” to the U.S. Supreme Court.

They also didn’t start in 2005, when Arizona’s Republican-dominated legislature passed a law giving local law enforcement the authority to jail illegal immigrants for even trying to cross the border—or, in 2006, when United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta gave a partisan speech to Tucson High School students in which she flatly asserted, “Republicans hate Latinos.”

They didn’t begin in 1994, when California Gov. Pete Wilson won re-election after endorsing Proposition 187, a referendum that sought to deny government benefits, including access to public schools, to undocumented immigrants.

Cumulatively, however, all this took a toll, and in 2012, Barack Obama garnered 71 percent of the Latino vote in this country, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project—and 75 percent, according to the calculation of Latino Decisions.

It was a bracing result, and an even a larger margin than four years earlier, when Obama captured a whopping two-thirds of the Latino vote. Both major political parties took note. Democrats have tried to keep their heel on the Republicans’ necks. Campaigning for fellow Democrats in this year’s midterms, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “I don’t know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican, okay.”

For his part, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to identify the nature of the problem—and propose some possible solutions. The report started by focusing on the tone of Republican communications on this issue.

“If Hispanic-Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e., self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” the report said. “It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”

Gary Segura and Matt Barreto of Latino Visions, concur, while also relating some of the problem to antipathy for those politics.

“What explains the huge numbers for Obama?” they have written. “Romney suffered from both an outreach problem to Latino voters as well as a policy agenda that just did not resonate with the Latino electorate. A robust 56 percent of Latino voters nationally did not feel that Romney ‘cares much’ about the Latino community, with another 18 percent feeling as though the Romney campaign was ‘hostile’ toward the Latino community. By contrast, two-thirds of Latinos surveyed said that Obama ‘cares about’ their community.”

Going forward into the 2014 midterms, the 2016 presidential election and beyond, both parties are attempting to position themselves to their own advantage. Competing articles of faith animate each side. Republicans have convinced themselves that Hispanics—because most of them are hard-working, religious, family-oriented—are a natural constituency for a culturally conservative political party, and that their biggest challenges are communications and outreach.

Democrats believe that Republicans can never overcome the stigma of the Pete Wilson-backed Proposition 187, a measure that encapsulates what Democrats consider the true Republican attitude toward immigrants of color. They point out that Wilson was the last Republican to win statewide in California, and that anti-immigration rhetoric from Tea Party-backed Republicans such as Iowa’s Steve King and Colorado’s Tom Tancredo have poisoned the party’s image—and made this constituency a lasting part of the Democratic base.

There are two things wrong with this analysis. First of all, as political scientists Zoltan L. Hajnal and Taeku Lee have documented, more Hispanics than Anglos are eschewing party labels and identifying themselves as independents.

“Hispanics are not a monolithic voting bloc,” California-based political scientists Marisa A. Abrajano and R. Michael Alvarez add in a new book. “The reason why Hispanics have received such a great deal of attention from politicians and candidates is because their political alliances are still up for grabs.”

As for the narrative about most Hispanics being closet conservatives—and if Republicans could just communicate a little better and make people forget about Pete Wilson, these voters would back GOP candidates—that’s off-kilter, too. The reality is more nuanced. Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald has pointed out that Hispanic immigrants, even in California, who vote Democratic almost never cite Wilson’s politics as the reason.

The Rev. Jim Tolle, pastor at the sprawling La Iglesia en el Camino, one of the largest Hispanic churches in Southern California, told Mac Donald that the members of his congregation know nothing about Proposition 187. “Hispanic skepticism toward the Republican Party,” she notes, “derives as much from its perceived economic biases as from Republicans’ opposition to illegal immigration and amnesty.”

Mitt Romney isn’t the man to blame, either, at least not solely. A public opinion survey of California Hispanics done a year before Romney won the nomination revealed that the two top sources of antipathy for the GOP were that the party was seen as greedy and favoring the rich. Immigration wasn’t at the top of the list.

But that isn’t to say that issues are irrelevant. Obamacare is more popular among Hispanics than Anglos, for one thing. So are other safety net-related issues, including the minimum wage.

“What Republicans mean by ‘family values’ and what Hispanics mean are two completely different things,” John Echeveste, founder a Southern California Latino marketing firm, told Mac Donald. “We are a very compassionate people, we care about other people and understand that government has a role to play in helping people.”

While romping to a re-election victory last year, Gov. Chris Christie won just over 50 percent of the Latino vote in heavily Democratic New Jersey. This was a significant increase from four years earlier—even though his 2013 opponent had a Hispanic running mate. Christie worked hard for that vote, and he crowed about how much better he’d done than other prominent Republicans. As for how he did it, Christie was atypically succinct: “It’s about the relationships.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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