San Diego Union Tribune

December 11, 2004

Latino's support for GOP in '04 worries Democrats

By Toby Eckert

WASHINGTON – As he traveled the country last summer to drum up support for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, one of the best-known Hispanic officials in the country, made a prediction:

President Bush would win the election if he and his Republican allies gained just five percentage points among Hispanic voters.

It appears Richardson was dead on.

While the exit polls are still subject to debate, Democrats concede that Bush made inroads among Hispanic voters on Election Day, and that the trend spells trouble for them unless they revamp efforts to reach out to the nation's fastest-growing constituency.

The development has set off a behind-the-scenes debate among party officials, who are scheduled to meet in Florida this weekend to begin the process of choosing a replacement for outgoing Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

"It is my belief that if Democrats don't reverse the gains Bush made, we will not be a majority party in my lifetime. The strategic stakes are life and death for the two parties," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the moderate New Democrat Network and a possible contender to lead the party.

Bush's recent actions could help consolidate any election gains. The first Cabinet nomination he made was Mexican-American Alberto Gonzales for attorney general and the fourth was Cuban-American Carlos Gutierrez for commerce secretary.

"We believe that we can continue to grow our share of the Hispanic vote," said Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "We believe we have taken stances on issues that resonate strongly in the Hispanic community."

Both parties are mindful of demographic trends that indicate Latinos will make up nearly a quarter of the U.S. population by 2050 and more than 33 percent by the turn of the century.

"That's what makes the gains (for Bush) so significant," said independent pollster John Zogby. "You pick up a few extra percentage points of a hugely growing group, you're talking major significance."

Some Hispanic political observers dispute the notion that Republicans are making lasting gains.

"Latinos may be on the edge of switching to be a swing vote, but they're still a base vote for the Democratic Party," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a research group that has touted a poll claiming Bush actually lost ground among Hispanic voters.

The institute's survey of voters leaving the polls on Election Day had Kerry drawing 64.6 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with 34.2 percent for Bush, which would be lower than his 35 percent showing in 2000.

Exit polls for news organizations put Bush's share of the Latino vote Nov. 2 at 40 percent, and a growing number of Democrats seem to accept that figure.

"That we could have done much better is definitely accurate," said one Kerry campaign veteran, who asked not to be named. "I don't think there really was an awareness of how much of a swing vote the Latino vote is becoming. On the Republican side, they got it."

Rosenberg, whose organization mounted a Spanish-language political ad blitz in several states before the election, had a more blunt assessment.

"John Kerry did not connect with Hispanic voters, period," he said. "There was not a serious national strategy at the Kerry campaign or the (Democratic Party) in this election, either in the battleground states or the non-battleground states."

Some independent analysts agree that the Bush campaign and the Republican Party had a better outreach effort, one that built on Bush's personal appeal to Hispanic voters – as a former Texas governor who has Hispanic family members – and had clear and consistent messages on issues such as national security and moral values.

"For some Latino voters, the fact that they were just being reached out and talked to was important," said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy research for the nonpartisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "I think the Republicans really stepped up their efforts, and that helped them."

In particular, she said, pre-election focus group discussions held by the association showed "the conservative values issue had some resonance" with Hispanic voters.

The Kerry campaign operative acknowledged that Republican criticism of Kerry's support for abortion rights and gay rights had an impact among Latinos. In addition to the traditional Catholic affiliation, "more and more Latinos are joining evangelical (Protestant) congregations," the operative said. "I think it made a difference this time."

Some Democrats say Bush's gains had more to do with personality and that it will be difficult for Republicans to hold on to them for the long term.

"I think the greatest challenge for the Republican Party over the next generation is to see whether they can find another Bush, if this great attraction that Hispanic voters have to the Bush family can be re-created with other candidates," said Sergio Bendixen, a Florida-based pollster affiliated with Democratic organizations.

Others say the problem is more structural than that.

"Our infrastructure and groups of people who do our (voter mobilization) work historically are based on unions, environmental groups, women's groups and the allied groups in the Democratic family," Rosenberg said. "Those groups are not strong in Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado – the emerging Sun Belt where the Hispanic populations are. If we want to become a majority party, the Democratic Party is going to have to do some serious thinking and make the Hispanic vote a much more serious priority at every level – structurally, strategically, financially, message-wise."

Hispanic Democrats have made it clear they want the next party leader to confront the issue head on.

"It is time for the leadership of the Democratic Party to face the facts," members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote in a letter to the party's executive committee this week. "Republicans have been committed, methodical and are clearly winning the battle for the Hispanic voters.

"If Democrats do not undertake a major paradigm shift in how they deal with (the) Latino vote, the future of the party is in serious jeopardy."

Some are encouraged that Gov. Richardson recently became chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association and appears determined to have a bigger voice in national party matters.

Before Election Day, he expressed a strong desire to see more Hispanics in top political positions.

"How many Latino James Carvilles, how many Latino Bob Shrums are there?" he asked, referring to veteran Democratic political strategists. "We need to train our people for voter mobilization, as campaign managers."

The growing importance of the Hispanic vote also might have a major impact on internal Republican Party politics, analysts say. It could benefit the presidential prospects of several Republican governors who have drawn considerable Latino support, including Florida's Jeb Bush, the president's brother; New York's George Pataki; or even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is the inspiration for an effort to amend the Constitution to allow foreign-born citizens to serve as president.

"If the Republicans are going to maintain or increase the level of support they have among Hispanic voters, they are going to have to continue to have candidates who have appealed to the community," said Adam Segal, director of Johns Hopkins University's Hispanic Voter Project.

"It's really something that will take a lot of cultivation and have to remain on the priority list, both at the Republican National Committee, on the gubernatorial level and also on the local party level."

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