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The Republicans’ Latino problem: embrace or lose

November 21, 2012

Consumed by their gargantuan effort to oust President Barack Obama from the White House, Republicans forgot that America is a country of immigrants and in the process flunked the 2012 election test. Mitt Romney lost African Americans to Obama by a 9 to 1 ratio. And he only received a meager 26% of the Asian American vote. Obviously, the GOP biggest blunder was with Latinos, who went for the President by a whopping 71 to 26% margin. This year Obama carried all subgroups of what is referred to as the Hispanic community, including Cuban Americans and self-identified evangelicals, who in the past have been conservative constituencies.

For Republicans, antagonizing one of the United States’ fastest growing demographics was always a bad strategy and, looking at long-term trends, it is bound to get even worse. And although a debate has already begun within the party on how to better appeal to Hispanic voters, it is unclear how well the GOP understands the depth of the hole it has dug for itself.

On November 6th, Latinos comprised 10% of the electorate, their highest share ever but one that still leaves a lot of room for more growth. Already 53 million-strong, Hispanics make up 17% of the overall population but tend to vote less than other groups. Simply by turning out in percentages more similar to those of white voters, for example, they would immediately have an even greater impact on elections. Additionally, a newly published report by the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that Latino voters will almost double in number by 2030, for primarily two reasons. They are the youngest ethnic group in the US, with a median age of 27 years compared to 42 years for whites, and can count on over fifteen million children and teenagers that will be turning 18 in the next two decades. Several million more Latinos are already waiting on the sidelines of the immigration system and could soon become part of the pool of eligible voters if they naturalized – applied for and obtained US citizenship that is. Already 5.4 millions are qualified legal permanent residents who only need to file the necessary paperwork. Another 7.1 million are undocumented but could be given a path to citizenship if Congress finally decided to tackle comprehensive immigration reform.

The bottom line of all these numbers is that Latinos are here to stay and that the GOP faces an increasingly uphill path to the presidency unless it mends its ways. Given the stakes, Romney’s dismal performance with Hispanic voters caused great uproar within the party, with national and state leaders now hell bent, at least on the surface, to find a way out of this problem. In the process, a consensus around two favored solutions appears to be building: mollifying the party’s hardline on immigration and/or running more candidates that are themselves of Hispanic descent.

There is no doubt that Republican talk of “illegals” and “deportations” did little to win them the affection of Latinos. But one should be careful to overstate the place this issue has in the minds of Hispanic voters and, therefore, the benefits that the GOP would reap by simply backtracking on it. “My understanding is that bread and butter issues such as economy, education, and jobs always rank among the highest that Latinos of a variety of backgrounds care about,” says Deborah J. Schildkraut, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science of Tufts University, “immigration is also important, but rarely overtakes the economic issues as most important.”

As for opening the party up to more Hispanic candidates, it is in many ways a reality already in the making – think of the growing crop of conservative Latino politicians emerging across the country, from Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas to Governors Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico.  But is it enough? “I think a candidate with the right issue positions would be sufficient, having a Latino candidate would not. It would help, but would not be sufficient,” says Schildkraut.

That the GOP internal debate over how to reach out to Hispanic voters is reduced to this simplistic choice says a lot about how little Republicans understand the problem at hand. Like the rest of the electorate, Latinos are a diverse and multidimensional group of people who come from a variety of different countries and backgrounds and care about a much vaster array of issues than just undocumented migrants from Mexico or politicians that look like them.

A majority of Hispanics has always voted democratic (although by smaller margins than this year’s) because they tend to be working people with limited financial means who care about improved access to jobs, education and healthcare and who feel Democrats show more concern over these issues than Republicans. Their view of the role of government in society certainly does not align with Tea Party fiscal conservatism. “In our surveys, we found that two-thirds of Hispanics support a government that provide more services and does more things rather than one that does less,” says Mark Lopez, Associate Director of the Pew Hispanic Center. And even though they are known to be more socially conservative than the nation as a whole, a fact that has the Christian right convinced it can sooner or later woo them over, Hispanics’ attitude toward issues such as gay marriage and abortion have been evolving along those of the rest of the country. “Our most recent survey showed that a majority of Hispanic voters now supports allowing gay and lesbians to legally marry, in 2006 it was the other way around”, says Lopez. “When it comes to abortion, while Latinos are still more conservative than the general public, we’ve seen movement there as well.”

The good news for the GOP is that individuals do matter after all. “The history of the Latino vote is that it has moved back and forth, always majority democratic in presidential elections, but support for Republican candidates going up and down depending on the candidate,” says Lopez.  In 2004, for example, President George W. Bush won nearly 45% of the Latino vote. And President Ronald Reagan won 35 and 37% in the 1980 and 1984 elections respectively.

The second President Bush is probably the best example yet of a Republican politician capable of attracting the votes of Hispanic Americans. “Looking forward, the GOP should consider not only a candidate who has a more moderate stance on immigration, but also someone that many Latinos might already know a lot about because he or she has a record of leadership in a state with a significant Latino presence,” says Professor Schildkraut. “Bush’s ability to win support among Latinos stemmed in part from his experience serving as governor of Texas.”

No doubt the national GOP can learn a lot from Texas, a border-state with one of the largest Hispanic populations in the country. Republicans here are on the front lines of the battle for their support.

“Texas is the epicenter of the growing Hispanic electorate in America, with a population that is over 38% Latino alone,” says Eric Garza, Vice Chairman of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans (FHR). “At the state level, things are progressing in an unfavorable manner for the GOP at this point and Texas is in step to becoming a purple or eventually a blue state over the next few years if the GOP doesn’t finally get serious about Hispanic voters.”

According to Garza, FHR has been working with the Texas Republican Party on many levels, bringing more Hispanic candidates to the fore, eliminating the harshest language on immigration from the state party platform, and expanding the outreach effort to make sure it is year-round and not only limited to election time – which apparently infuriates Latino voters – and that it touches upon the many issues Hispanic Americans care about.

So maybe Texas, and now finally even the GOP establishment, is getting the message. But what about the rest of the country? And the Tea Party? At a recent panel for conservative lawmakers, Iowa Representative Steve King stood firm on immigration and discounted the importance of the Latino vote. “We saw a marginal loss of the Hispanic vote, so people say we can’t build a coalition again unless we make those accommodations,” King said. “We should look at what happened with the conservatives who stayed home. What happened with the biggest gender gap in history? What happened with the Ron Paul coalition, and the libertarians?”

While the GOP appears to have inaugurated a much needed period of soul-searching, indications are that the party can still go either way, although if one looks at demographic trends, it really has no choice but to embrace Hispanic Americans if it doesn’t want to gradually fade into political oblivion.

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

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