Should Republicans court Hispanic voters? Only if they want to survive. By Clint Bolick.
The bitter debate over immigration has damaged the Republican Party’s effort to expand its base, particularly among Hispanic voters. The Republican share of the Hispanic vote grew in 2004 to about 40 percent nationally— only to decline precipitously to about 30 percent in the disastrous 2006 congressional elections. Whether America closes its borders or opens them, the number of Hispanic voters will increase, and future GOP electoral hopes may hinge on its success in attracting votes from a constituency with which it shares key values.
The most strident anti-immigration advocates deride such an effort as futile, arguing that Hispanics are natural Democrats and that efforts to court them will come at the expense of the GOP base. “It would make a lot more sense,” urges writer Sam Francis, “for the Stupid Party to forget about Hispanics as a bloc they could win from their rivals, start thinking about how to control immigration, dump the ads in Spanish, and start speaking the language of the white middle class that keeps them in office.”
That common prescription overlooks four important facts. First, even if not a single new Hispanic immigrant were to gain citizenship, which is highly unlikely, the number of Hispanic voters in the United States will continue to increase inexorably. Second, Hispanics are not strongly attached to either political party, and many Republicans have enjoyed significant success in attracting their votes. Third, even if Republicans fail to win a majority of Hispanic votes, the difference between a 30 percent share and a 40 percent share is enough to matter significantly in forthcoming elections. Fourth, Republicans can effectively recruit Hispanic voters by emphasizing common values, without sacrificing any principles in the process—even if those principles encompass tough border-control policies.
A SLUMBERING ELECTORAL GIANT
According to the latest census figures, 44 million Hispanics live in the United States and are by far the fastest-growing segment of the population. The Hispanic share of the electorate is growing at a slow but steady pace, with more than 9 million Hispanics (or 6 percent of all voters) participating in the 2004 presidential election. The 10 percent Hispanic swing from Republican to Democratic candidates between 2004 and 2006 may have spelled the difference in four congressional races that netted new seats for Democrats. In 2006, the Hispanic vote was perhaps crucial in four key swing states: Arizona (where 17.2 percent of eligible voters are Hispanic), Colorado (12.4 percent), Nevada (12.5 percent), and New Mexico (37.6 percent). Given the closeness of the national electoral map, the GOP will have to appeal mightily to Hispanics in Western states to have a chance at winning the presidency in 2008.
Hispanics today, however, do not exercise anywhere near their potential electoral clout. Even though they made up over 14 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for only 6 percent of the voters in 2004. There are several explanations for that: the large percentage of Hispanics who are not citizens, the large number of Hispanics who are below age 18 and thus ineligible to vote, low registration rates, and low turnout rates. Those who disdain GOP outreach to Hispanics may draw comfort from those voter statistics, but in fact they portray a slumbering electoral giant. As U.S. citizens of Hispanic descent turn 18, their share of the electorate will grow at a much faster rate than other groups. If participation increases among eligible voters, Hispanic influence also will grow. As a 2006 report by the Pew Hispanic Center found, “If [eligible] Hispanics had registered and voted in 2004 at the same rate as whites in their age brackets, Hispanics would have cast an additional 2.7 million ballots”—swelling their impact by more than 26 percent.
Future potential Hispanic voter influence is also magnified by immigration trends. Fully one-third of the Hispanic population in the United States either is applying or plans to apply for citizenship. A 2005 Pew Hispanic Center survey of Mexican migrants found that 59 percent plan to stay in the United States as long as they can, or for the rest of their lives.
All of this indicates that the growth of the Hispanic electorate is inevitable. What, then, should Republicans do about it?
FERTILE FIELDS FOR REPUBLICANS
At first blush, the climb to reach Hispanic voters appears steep: about half of registered Hispanic voters consider themselves Democrats; only about 20 percent are Republicans. (Those numbers are skewed by the large percentage of Cuban-Americans who are Republicans; support for the GOP is even lower among non-Cuban Hispanics.) What’s more, foreign-born Hispanic voters are even more likely than their native-born counterparts to register as Democrats. Hispanic voters favor Democrats over Republicans on a host of important issues: immigration (49 to 26 percent), health care (66 to 21 percent), the Iraq war (57 to 26 percent), education (62 to 23 percent), and terrorism and security (45 to 34 percent). But demographic trends portend some optimism for Republicans: among registered Hispanic voters ages 18 to 29, 34 percent are Democrats, while 21 percent are Republicans and 26 percent are independents. Among Hispanics planning to become citizens, only 22 percent call themselves Democrats, while 14 percent align with Republicans, and 35 percent consider themselves independents.
Other factors suggest Republican growth potential. A 2006 survey by the nonpartisan Latino Coalition found that 34.2 percent of registered Hispanic voters consider themselves conservative, compared with 25.8 percent who call themselves liberals. That trend is reflected in Hispanics’ positions on a range of issues. A sizable majority—53.6 percent—of registered Hispanic voters believe that the Hispanic community should emphasize becoming a part of American society over retaining its own culture. Given a choice between cutting taxes or raising government spending as the best strategy to grow the economy, 61.2 percent favor lower taxes whereas only 25.5 percent support increased spending. More than 60 percent say they would be less likely to support a candidate who supports gay marriage. A majority (52.8 percent) consider themselves pro-life rather than pro-choice (39.8 percent).
Most Hispanics are religious, and their divorce rate is low. Of course, the principal magnet attracting Hispanic immigrants to the United States is work, and entrepreneurship is prevalent in Hispanic communities here. Among Hispanic voters, 60.2 percent own their homes. Considering the strong work ethic, devotion to family, and conservative social values, no wonder Ronald Reagan quipped: “Latinos are Republican. They just don’t know it yet.”
After the 2004 presidential election, in which 40 percent of Hispanics voted to re-elect President Bush, the liberal National Council of La Raza commented that “a substantial proportion of Hispanics are ‘swing voters’ not bound to party affiliation” and that the “results should serve as a warning to those inclined to assume that Hispanics are part of the ‘Democratic base,’ and who therefore take the Latino vote for granted.” A substantial portion of the Hispanic vote appears up for grabs.
Former National Republican Committee chairman and Bush re-election campaign manager Ken Mehlman describes the stakes bluntly: “The majority party in the twenty-first century will be the party that reaches out to Hispanics.” Given the demographic trends, the GOP cannot afford to have Hispanics follow the lead of blacks, voting habitually and overwhelmingly for Democrats. At the same time, Republicans can’t afford to jettison their base, or to out-Democrat the Democrats on government giveaways. Fortunately, that does not appear to be what most Hispanics want.
To appeal to Hispanic voters, Republicans need to play to their strengths and avoid alienating rhetoric. Here are four concrete strategies to do just that.
STEP ONE: GET THE IMMIGRATION ISSUE OUT OF THE WAY
Nearly all political commentators agree that the plunge in Hispanic support for GOP candidates in 2006 was attributable in large part to the virulently anti-immigration message pushed by many Republican candidates. “The problem was as much about tone as substance—many Latinos are worried about illegal immigration,” observes the Manhattan Institute’s Tamar Jacoby. “Not only illegal immigrants but 30 million Latino voters heard Republicans saying, ‘We don’t like you.’ ” Pollster John Zogby agrees. “I found a considerable amount of agreement with the Republican Party on social issues like abortion, gay marriage, and guns,” he says of a 2006 national exit poll of Hispanic voters, “but also a strong reluctance to vote for a party that promoted the anti-immigration Proposition 187 in California.”
Many Hispanic voters support efforts to deter illegal immigration. In 2004, for instance, 47 percent of Arizona Hispanic voters supported Proposition 200, which required proof of citizenship for government benefits; two years later, 48 percent supported making English the official language. But unsurprising, in light of the heated rhetoric on the issue, many Hispanics appear to view Republicans as hostile toward them. Zogby’s 2006 poll found that despite the convergence on social issues, twice as many registered Hispanic voters (54 to 28 percent) believe that Democrats represent their values better than Republicans.
Arizona painted a representative portrait. When stridently anti-immigration Republicans like representatives J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf were losing GOP congressional seats, U.S. Senator Jon Kyl, who strongly favors border enforcement but sponsored legislation that would allow a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who return home, was winning re-election with 41 percent of the Hispanic vote. How to explain the difference? “It’s about what kinds of innuendo you use in making your case,” explains Jacoby. “It’s about whether or not you’re imagining a shared future, and how constructively you’re planning for it.”
Indeed, most Hispanics—including illegal immigrants—support comprehensive immigration reform so long as it provides some path to citizenship. A 2002 poll of the Hispanic electorate found majorities supporting proposals to give illegal Latino immigrants a chance to obtain legal status, or a guest-worker program that would require them to return to their home countries. A large majority of Mexican migrants say they would participate in such programs.
So although most Hispanics may view Republicans who want to wall off the Mexican border as anti-Hispanic nativists, many are open to Republicans who propose constructive, if difficult, solutions.
In the 2006 congressional elections, as Jacoby points out, “Immigration was the dog that didn’t bark. It did not prove an effective wedge issue.” Even as “Republicans painted themselves into a xenophobic corner,” immigration failed to mobilize voters at the base to vote Republican.
The bottom line for Republicans, politically speaking, is that they need to resolve the immigration issue. It matters less how they do it than that they do it quickly, as long as they provide some path to citizenship, even an arduous one. The 2006 midterm elections proved that extreme rhetoric about securing the borders does not win elections for Republicans but that it can drive a growing part of the electorate into Democrats’ welcoming arms.
STEP TWO: GET RELIGION
Probably the key way for Republicans systematically to make common cause with Hispanics is through religion. Hispanics tend to be deeply religious, to practice socially conservative forms of Christianity, and to be politically influenced by their religion.
Two major studies—one in 2007 by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and one in 2003 by the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies—shed great insight on the practice and influence of religion in Hispanic communities in the United States. More than 66 percent of Hispanics are Catholics, while 15 percent are Protestants. Only 8 percent are secular—that is, unaffiliated with a church, atheist, or agnostic. Hispanics are more likely than most Americans to say that religion is very important in their lives.
Most striking about Hispanic religious beliefs is their close affiliation with “renewalist” faiths—evangelical and charismatic. An outright majority of Hispanic Catholics describe themselves as charismatic or Pentecostal, compared to only 10 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics. Likewise, more than 50 percent of Hispanic Protestants are renewalists, compared to only about 20 percent of non-Hispanic Protestants. Moreover, conversion to Protestantism is large and growing.
Two-thirds of Hispanics say their religious beliefs are an important influence on their political thinking. Among the evangelicals, 86 percent say their religious beliefs are an important influence and 62 percent say they are very important. Yet fewer than one in four Hispanics have ever been asked by churches, religious organizations, or religious leaders to engage in a political effort, suggesting vast untapped mobilization potential.
Religiosity among Hispanics exerts strong ideological influences: among Hispanic Catholics who attend church at least once a week, 36 percent are conservative and only 18 percent are liberal; among evangelicals, 46 percent are conservative and only 10 percent are liberal. Notably, although Hispanics as a whole are far more likely than non-Hispanics to oppose abortion (57 to 40 percent) and gay marriage (56 to 42 percent), first-generation Hispanics are more conservative on those views than third-generation Hispanics.
Religion thus appears to influence party affiliation among Hispanics, but Republicans have not reaped as many benefits in that regard as they have among non-Hispanics. Only 18 percent of Hispanic Catholics are Republicans, whereas 55 percent are Democrats, compared to 39 percent Republicans and 32 percent Democrats among non-Hispanic Catholics. Hispanic evangelicals are split at 39 percent each among Republicans and Democrats, while half of non-Hispanic evangelicals are Republicans and only 25 percent are Democrats. Here, national origin matters greatly: evangelicals of Mexican descent are especially drawn to the GOP, with 47 percent Republicans compared to only 24 percent Democrats, whereas Puerto Rican evangelical Democrats outnumber Republicans by 52 to 18 percent. Conservative religious adherents are much more likely to register to vote: 85 percent of conservative Catholics and 90 percent of conservative evangelicals are registered, compared to only 71 percent of liberal Catholics.
If Republicans can come close to attracting as many Hispanics with conservative religious beliefs as non-Hispanics, they will put the growing Latino vote solidly into play.
STEP THREE: AGGRESSIVELY PROMOTE SCHOOL CHOICE
Given the number of Hispanics younger than 18, the importance that most Hispanic families place on education, and the paucity of high-quality educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged Hispanic youngsters, the idea of school choice resonates among that group. School choice offers perhaps the most attractive issue on which Republicans can make serious inroads among Hispanic voters.
Education is one of the top issues of concern to Hispanic voters. Unfortunately, by a ratio of 43 to 19 percent, they think Democrats represent their views on education better than Republicans.
But polls also find that upward of 60 percent of Hispanics support school vouchers. (Support for school choice among African-Americans is even greater.) A pathbreaking May 2007 national survey of 820 registered Hispanic voters by the Polling Company and the Ampersand Agency—polling firms affiliated with Republicans and Democrats, respectively—demonstrates the salience of school choice as a galvanizing issue. The poll found that education is the top priority for 43 percent of Hispanic voters and one of the top three priorities for 82 percent of those voters. Hispanic families generally rate their public schools highly, but 30 percent consider their children’s schools unsafe. If offered the chance to send their children to a private school or a public school in a different district, 75 percent said they would be interested, with 55 percent very interested.
Nearly 66 percent of Hispanic voters said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports school choice—including 35 percent who said they would be much more likely—compared with only 19 percent who responded that support for school choice would make them less likely to vote for a candidate. Among Hispanic Democrats, 63 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who favors school choice. Among voters who indicated they would be less likely to vote for candidates who opposed school choice, 70 percent said they would make such a choice even if the candidate were affiliated with their own party. That statistic demonstrates the enormous potential of the school choice issue for Republicans: more than 43 percent of registered Hispanic voters—including 38 percent of Democrats—say they would cross party lines to vote for a candidate who supports school choice over one who opposes it.
Almost all the Democratic candidates for president, as well as most congressional candidates, fiercely oppose school choice. Nearly all Republican candidates support it. Nothing should be a more obvious tactic for Republicans than to appeal directly and passionately to Hispanic voters on school choice, and to make their opponents’ hostility for school choice known.
STEP FOUR: REACH OUT FOR REAL
By a ratio of 52 to 16 percent, registered Hispanic voters believe that Democrats are in better touch with the Hispanic community than are Republicans. Outreach efforts featuring isolated Hispanic conservatives making superficial appeals are calculated to fail. Republicans need to take their message to Hispanic communities, directly and persistently, and to recruit and embrace Hispanic Republican candidates in meaningful electoral contests. As my friend and superstar Republican strategist Scott Jensen puts it, “You have to be present to win.”
Progress in both regards is uneven. Richard Nadler, president of America’s Majority, which is dedicated to expanding the demographic base of the conservative movement, reports that conservative “527” independent political action groups in 2004 sponsored 12,000 Spanish-language advertisements in six target states: Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. The ads highlighted Republican candidates’ support for traditional marriage, tax breaks for families and small businesses, school choice, right to life, military preparedness, personal savings accounts, and faithbased social initiatives. The share of Hispanics voting Republican in those six target states increased 7.6 percent from 2000, while their share in other states changed little. But in 2006, Republicans focused on their core voter base, which they felt required rhetoric that alienated Hispanics, and the Republican share of the Hispanic vote plummeted predictably.
The dearth of Hispanic Republican candidates for contested offices could suppress Hispanic votes for Republicans. The 2008 GOP presidential field is decidedly white, and credible future Hispanic Republican candidates for national office have yet to appear on the horizon. A few states, such as Texas, Florida, California, New Mexico, and New York, have produced prominent Hispanic Republican officeholders. But in my adopted state, Arizona, in which Hispanics account for more than 17 percent of registered voters, there are virtually no Hispanic Republican officeholders, and recent history suggests that highly qualified Hispanics cannot win contested Republican primaries.
Research also reveals that Hispanics are much more inclined to vote Democratic if they live in heavily Democratic districts. In recent years, using the Voting Rights Act and plain old gerrymandering, Republicans have cynically fostered heavily minority voting districts in an attempt to carve out safe Republican districts. In the long run, Republicans must expose Hispanic voters to Republican messages if they have any hope of winning their votes. This means integration, not isolation, in district line-drawing.
History is littered with examples of political parties triumphing when they reached out to immigrants and perishing when they embraced xenophobia. Perhaps no better example exists than the aptly named Know- Nothings, who thrived for a time during the nineteenth century on anti-immigration fervor but quickly faded into oblivion.
Regardless of how the current immigration debate resolves itself, newcomers will continue to add to our population. Most immigrants are attracted to the United States not by our welfare state but by the promise of economic opportunity. That is true of Hispanics, who exemplify traditional Republican values of hard work, entrepreneurship, education, family, and belief in God. Many if not most are open to voting for Republicans. Given demographic trends that immigration policy is powerless to fully reverse, the Republican Party needs to attract as many of their votes as it can. Although the task is difficult, the party can draw comfort from understanding that attracting Hispanic votes does not mean abandoning its core principles, but embracing them.
Clint Bolick is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and also serves as the director of the Goldwater Institute Center for Constitutional Litigation in Phoenix. Before joining the Goldwater Institute in 2007, Bolick was litigation director of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest firm that he cofounded in 1991, and president of the Alliance for School Choice, a national nonprofit educational policy group advocating school choice programs across the country.
Special to the Hoover Digest.
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