Diego Union Tribune
October 3, 2004
Latinos' clout may be crucial
By Toby Eckert and Jerry Kammer
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
YUMA, Ariz. – In the Arizona border town of San Luis, where the irrigation lines tapping the Colorado River have transformed a barren desert into vast green fields of lettuce, broccoli and melons, Ismael Solorio was weighing his options.
Solorio is an immigrant from Mexico and the father of a U.S. soldier heading to Iraq.
"For me, Bush has done a good job," said Solorio, who is more comfortable speaking Spanish than English.
But he wasn't completely sold on the Republican president. He was curious to learn more about Bush's Democratic rival, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
"I don't know much about Kerry," he said. "If he has good programs, maybe I'd vote for him. I'm not sure yet."
Solorio is part of a voting group that strategists in both major parties say could be crucial to the outcome of this year's presidential election, and which will have an increasingly profound influence on shaping U.S. politics as the new century unfolds.
Once reliably Democratic, the nation's burgeoning Latino population is exhibiting more characteristics of a swing-vote group, particularly recent immigrants who have little or no loyalty to either of the major parties.
"The old days when all you had to do was get a high turnout among Hispanics to get your 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 (Democratic) support level are gone," said Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixen. "Over the last two election cycles, it's shown to be a very persuadable vote, maybe the biggest swing vote in the nation."
Bendixen has advised the New Democrat Network, a group independent of the Kerry campaign, on an aggressive Spanish-language advertising blitz in Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, states with large Latino populations that could tip the balance in the presidential race.
"There's no doubt that it is in play and an opportunity for the Republican Party," said Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Some skeptics argue that the importance being placed on the Latino vote is exaggerated. They note that while the nation's 32.8 million Latinos constituted 12.5 percent of the population in 2000, they cast only 5.6 percent of the vote that year. The black vote was nearly twice that.
The Latino population is now estimated at 38.8 million, the nation's largest minority group.
Experts say low rates of citizenship, combined with a large population under the legal voting age of 18, have kept Latinos from exerting more influence on U.S. politics. The National Journal has dubbed it "the mañana vote," using the Spanish word for "tomorrow."
Latino political professionals hotly dispute that.
"It's not the mañana vote. It's the today vote," said Fabiola Rodriguez, director of Hispanic media for the Kerry campaign.
Lionel Sosa, Bush's longtime media adviser, points to the 1 percentage-point edge that Bush enjoyed over Democrat Al Gore among Latino voters in Florida in the tight 2000 election, an edge driven by traditionally Republican Cuban-Americans. Many Democrats have criticized Gore for not making more of an effort to rally Latino voters in the Sunshine State, which has growing numbers of non-Cuban Hispanics.
"If it hadn't been for that, Gore would be in the White House today," Sosa said. "For anybody to say it has never had an impact, that's just not right. Not only could it affect the vote once more in Florida, it's going to be important in New Mexico. It's going to be important in Arizona, Nevada and maybe Colorado. It could well elect the next president, as it elected the last president."
Indeed, Democrats have vowed not to repeat 2000, when Bush and the Republicans outspent Gore and the Democrats by nearly 3-to-1 on Spanish-language TV advertising, according to a study by Adam Segal, who heads the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.
The National Council of La Raza estimates that 33 percent of all Latinos watch some Spanish-language TV, while Bendixen says 75 percent of foreign-born and Spanish-language-dominant Hispanics get most of their information from networks such as Univision and Telemundo.
Bush also took advantage of his family's personal ties to the Latino population, making his Spanish-speaking, photogenic nephew George P. Bush, whose mother is Mexican, a fixture on the 2000 campaign trail.
Reporters for Latino media organizations say the GOP out-hustled the Democrats by making Bush and other top Republicans readily available for interviews and translating masses of campaign material into Spanish, an effort spearheaded by former Univision reporter Sonia Colin, whom Bush personally recruited.
"It was unprecedented. It was something that I had not seen before," said Colin, who is not part of Bush's re-election campaign.
On Election Day, Bush – a border-state governor who often peppered his speeches with Spanish – got an estimated 35 percent of the Latino vote, more than any GOP presidential candidate since 1984, when Ronald Reagan drew 37 percent.
"We've been behind the Republicans (in Latino outreach). I don't think we're behind anymore," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, which planned on spending $5 million on its campaign to make the Democratic Party a "brand name" among Latino voters. "I think we've caught up, and frankly, I think we've surpassed them."
The battle for Latino support this year might come down to a relatively small number of votes. Many analysts believe Bush will be re-elected if he can push that support to 40 percent.
"What's at stake is 5 percent. Will the Republicans get 40 percent? I don't think they will. But if they do, they win the election," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat and one of the best-known Latino politicians in the country.
"If we get 40 percent, that's a big win for us," agreed Frank Guerra, a Bush media adviser.
Both the Kerry and Bush camps have set up aggressive operations to reach Latino voters, supplemented by their respective parties and by independent groups.
The Bush campaign's first TV ad, aired just after Kerry effectively clinched the Democratic nomination in early March, included a Spanish-language version. The ad, which also featured first lady Laura Bush, portrayed Bush as a steady, confident leader on the economy, defense and education.
Kerry launched his first Spanish-language ad of the general election campaign in May, with a commercial timed to Memorial Day that highlighted his military service in Vietnam and paid homage to Latino veterans.
He followed that up in July with a $1 million TV, radio and print campaign that portrayed him as "a man of faith, a man of family, a man of honor" – themes that some analysts believe play particularly well among close-knit Latino families.
"We've already surpassed what Gore-Lieberman spent," said Rodriguez, Kerry's director of Hispanic media, noting that the campaign also aired Spanish-language ads during the primary election season.
The advertising efforts are being supplemented by voter registration initiatives, fund-raising drives and armies of surrogate campaigners. Republicans say they have 14,000 "Hispanic team leaders." Democrats say they have 10,000 elected and appointed Latino officials talking up Kerry.
The Kerry campaign also has organized Unidos con Kerry (United With Kerry) parties at restaurants and private homes, and intends to send Latino supporters from less-contested territory into battleground states on Election Day. They will staff phone banks and work to get people to the polls.
A majority of Latinos has long identified with the Democratic Party.
"The U.S.-born segment is very predictable. It's about 2-to-1 Democrat," Bendixen said.
But some recent trends, particularly among newer immigrants, have raised concerns among Democrats and buoyed Republicans.
"The old party loyalties, the idea that Latinos are in lock step with the Democratic Party, it's changing now," said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy research for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "The political affiliation and party loyalty of Latinos is very much in flux."
Since 2000, the proportion of Latinos identifying themselves as Democrats nationwide has declined to 45 percent from 48 percent, according to surveys. In California, which has the country's largest concentration of Latino voters, Democratic registration among Latinos has fallen to 52 percent from 66 percent, while Republican registration has risen to 25 percent from 18 percent, according to NALEO.
Republicans also see encouraging results in recent races for governor in New York, Florida and California, in which GOP candidates drew considerable Latino support.
In the 2003 California recall election, an estimated 45 percent of Latinos voted to throw Democratic Gov. Gray Davis out of office, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll. About 41 percent voted for the Republican candidates to replace Davis – actor Arnold Schwarzenegger or state Sen. Tom McClintock – over Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.
Until recently, "it hasn't been kosher to be a Latino Republican," said Jose Esparza, co-founder of the Arizona Latino Republican Association.
He and Ruben Alvarez, who leads the Bush campaign's "Viva Bush" Hispanic outreach effort in Arizona, were staffing a table at the sprawling Phoenix Civic Plaza amid the bustle of the National Council of La Raza's annual conference in June.
Esparza is the grandson of a miner who worked the rich copper veins of Gila County, east of Phoenix, where Democrats predominate. Alvarez was once head of the Arizona State University chapter of MEChA, the Mexican-American student group.
"Once I got into the real world, I started to realize that I was more in line with the principles of the Republican Party," said Alvarez, who knows the sting of being called a vendido – a sellout.
"We're entrepreneurs. We're optimistic. We want lower taxes. We're a family of faith," Esparza, an employee of Southwest Gas Corp., said in explaining his family's conversion to the GOP.
Those are the themes the Bush campaign hopes will resonate with more and more Latino voters.
Education is key
It's a hard sell for some.
Bush has got to go, said Carmen Molina, a newly laid-off Phoenix resident who shook her head at the $5.25-an-hour temporary job she was referred to by a state employment agency. "It seems like Mr. Bush has decided to send all the jobs out of the country."
Kerry's policy agenda includes increasing the minimum wage to $7 an hour, which would benefit Latino families proportionately more than the general population; increased spending on education; a program to expand health care for uninsured workers; and an immigration reform plan that he said would offer "a path to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked in the United States for at least five years.
Bush has called in general terms for a guest-worker program, but not an outright legalization program.
Surveys by NALEO and the National Council of La Raza found that education was far and away the most important issue among Latino voters. Education is viewed as a doorway to economic progress, especially because 34.4 percent of Latinos are under age 18. Jobs and immigration also were top concerns.
Other issues are bubbling below the surface.
"I don't think the (Iraq) war is very popular within the Hispanic community," said Colin, Bush's Hispanic media coordinator in 2000. "They feel there is money for war and not money for their daily needs."
Republicans believe they can make a strong appeal to heavily Catholic Latino voters on social issues, including abortion and gay marriage.
"These issues are creating a tension," said the Rev. Javier Perez, parish priest at the colonial-style church in Somerton, Ariz., about 12 miles north of the Mexican border. "If the church takes a strong position on these issues, it could damage the vote for the Democrats."
Perez made that observation earlier this year, just a few days after Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead declared that politicians who support abortion rights and same-sex marriage should be denied Communion. Kerry supports abortion rights, and he opposes same-sex marriage but also opposes a constitutional amendment to ban it. Bush opposes abortion and favors a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Latinos will make up nearly one-quarter of the population by 2050, numbering 102.5 million.
So the messages and strategies being refined to reach Latino voters this year will only grow in importance. Those voters increasingly expect candidates to directly address issues of particular concern to them, in a language they can understand.
"If we don't develop a Spanish voice, if we can't learn how to speak in Spanish as Democrats, we simply won't be the majority party in my lifetime," said Rosenberg, of the New Democrat Network. "This is not a luxury. This is a necessity."
It also is a point of some pride for many Latinos.
Addressing a conference of Latino officials this summer, Richardson capped his remarks with a line that drew a hearty ovation from the audience.
"I care mostly about our community really in this election having the . . . turnout that at the end they'll say, 'El presidente fue decidido por el voto hispano,' " the New Mexico governor said.
Translation: The presidency was decided by the Hispanic vote.