Every election cycle, pundits, candidates, and journalists speculate that this might be the campaign in which a Republican presidential candidate wins over Latino voters, a large and growing body of the electorate.
Unless something dramatic occurs, it will not happen this year.
A mid-January national poll of Latino registered voters — conducted in part by UW political science professor Matt Barreto — showed that the most recent Republican president, George W. Bush, and the three front-running 2012 GOP presidential candidates are viewed far less favorably than the current Democratic president, Barack Obama. Among Latinos with opinions of the candidates, 72% had a favorable impression of Obama, compared to no more than 37% for any of the Republicans.
In head-to-head electoral matchups in the same survey, Obama beat Mitt Romney 67-25 and Newt Gingrich 70-22. Each of these was even more tilted than in the 2008 election, when Obama beat John McCain 67-31 among Latinos voters.
So why aren’t Republicans winning over Latino voters?
First up, there is nothing that necessarily drives Latinos toward Republicans — or Democrats for that matter. Latino Americans are as diverse as the country they live in. There are the frequently cited differences between sub cultures of the Latino population such as Cuban and Mexican Americans, but these are just the tip of the iceberg.
Each of the groups within the national Latino community is independently diverse in political ideologies, values, and even origins. Some in these communities speak Spanish and some don’t, and some attend Catholic mass on Sunday and some don’t. Some are recent immigrants and many are not.
These things perhap do not need to be said, but stereotypes run deep. To think of these communities as identical or homogenous is as naive as thinking of all American ex-patriots living abroad as being from a single political ideology.
A central difficulty for Republican presidential candidates in appealing to Latino voters is a history of GOP policies that have been perceived as hostile to immigrants. In California in the early 1990s, Republican governor Pete Wilson campaigned hard for Proposition 187, which denied education and health care to illegal immigrants. The law was eventually declared unconstitutional by courts, but the electoral effect was tectonic: California had voted for a Democratic president one time in the previous eight elections before Prop 187; it has voted Democratic every time since.
In Arizona in 2010, it was a Republican legislature and governor who passed a controversial law allowing law enforcement to check nationalization of suspects, and to pursue deportation more easily. This law has been emulated in other Republican-headed states, including Alabama, South Carolina, and Utah. The Obama administration’s Department of Justice has challenged the constitutionality of each of these laws.
In Colorado for the caucuses last week, I spoke with Steve Rodriguez who is Vice President of Somos Republicans, a grassroots organization dedicated to attracting Latinos to the Republican party. Citing the party’s perceived anti-immigrant position, Rodriguez said that they have a steep uphill battle when it comes to appealing to Latino communities.
“Our goal [at Somos Republicans] is to change the negative perception of anti-immigrant, anti-minority within the party first,” said Rodriguez. “Our group is talking to Republican leaders from around the country and we’re trying to change the tone. The tone has to be more moderate.”
In this campaign, the Republican candidates have taken stiff positions against illegal immigration. For example, the party’s most likely nominee, Romney, has argued that those here illegally should engage in “self-deportation.” The party’s 2008 GOP standard-bearer, John McCain, has endorsed Romney, but he nonetheless criticized Romney’s immigration position recently in an interview with Univision. McCain said Republicans needed to adopt a “more humane” approach to illegal immigration.
Somos Republicans could not agree more.
“The writing is on the wall…If we don’t become a party that’s inclusive, of…not only of the Hispanic community, but of minorities period,” Rodriguez added, “there’s not going to be a Republican party.”