It's fast becoming a political article of faith that Republicans can kiss the Latino vote good-bye in 2008. At first glance, there's good cause for the Democrats to get cocky about bagging the Latino vote. Bush is widely, and unfairly, blamed for making a mess of the immigration reform fight in Congress by not pushing hard enough for passage of the bill. Immigrant rights groups lambaste Republican Senators for piling crippling demands for tight amnesty, citizenship, and border security provisions on the bill. And leading Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Rudy Guiliani didn't help matters by flatly opposing the bill as much too soft on amnesty and border enforcement.
That did much to kill whatever flickering hope there was for the bill's passage, at least for now. But immigration is only one issue, and with the election 17 months away, there's no guarantee that it will be the dominant issue when the race heats up in the fall and next year. In a head-to-head fight between the top Democrat and top Republican presidential candidate, especially if the Republican candidate is John McCain, it will be a dogfight for the Latino vote. McCain will take a lot of credit for being the Republican that fought to get an immigration reform bill through Congress. That will play well with Hispanic voters, particularly in his home state of Arizona. He's popular there and the state holds its primary February 5, so that makes it a key early battleground state. Polls have shown that Latino voters are lukewarm at best to top Democrats Barack Obama and John Edwards. In fact Obama is such a mystery man to most Latinos, barely half in polls say they know nothing about him.
Democrats also shouldn't forget why Bush scored big with Latino voters in 2000 and the 2004 presidential elections. It wasn't because of immigration. It wasn't the hot button issue at the time. Bush campaign officials pumped millions into ads on Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo that aired in New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and Arizona. The ads were geared to up the Republican vote total among Latinos by as much as five percent. That was the figure that Republican strategists figured would help tip these states to Bush. They figured correctly.
But they also got a lot of backing from Latino Republicans. In the National Survey of Latinos: The Latino Electorate, conducted in 2002 by the Pew Hispanic Center, found that one-fifth of Latinos are Republicans. The survey also confirmed the not-so-subtle link between race and party affiliation. The overwhelming majority of the Latinos that self-identified as Republicans, also self-identified as "white." That corresponded with the Pew survey that found that those most likely to be Republican were wealthier, better educated, and at least in their racial eyes, white.
Then there are the Latino evangelicals. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there are 15 million evangelicals in the U.S. That includes three million who are charismatic Catholics. They make up about one fourth of the membership of evangelical churches and a big percent of those in Catholic churches in America, and their numbers are getting bigger. They are staunchly anti-gay marriage, and anti-abortion, and pro-family values, and pro-school prayer. Latino evangelicals flexed their political muscle last year when they forced several prominent national evangelical groups to backpedal fast from their hard-nosed stance on immigration reform, and either remain neutral in the debate, or issue cautious and bland statements calling on Congress to enact a fair and balanced immigration reform law.
Despite the pique of many Latino evangelicals at the Republicans for not doing enough to get the immigration bill through the Senate in the latest go-round, they are still prime political pickings for the GOP. The National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast and Conference invited every Republican presidential candidate along with the Democrats to address their prayer breakfast and conference in Washington D.C. this year. Meanwhile, Obama and Hillary Clinton have read the religious tea leafs and have turned somersaults trying to sell the idea that they are religious fundamentalists in their own right.
A core of Latino Democrats have warned top Democrats that they tread with great peril if they take the Latino vote for granted. In the wake of the defeat of Democratic presidential contender John Kerry in November, 2004, 30 Latino Democrats huddled in Washington D.C. to map out a political strategy to derail Bush's efforts to boost Latino voter support for the GOP and to pressure top Democrats to place greater emphasis on Latino interests. Party officials jumped at the plan, and formed the Coronado Project.
The Latino Democrats then sent a memo to Democratic Party officials and sternly admonished that failure to court Latino voters would be "suicidal." The Democratic contenders have mostly heeded their warning. But so will the Republicans, and they will match them dollar for dollar to court Latino voters, and they'll pitch conservative values. That will play well with enough Latinos to give the Democrats no cause for cockiness.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.