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The Battle for the Latino Vote

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The 2006 elections are barely over and the race for the 2008 presidency has begun in earnest. With the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are only fourteen months away, candidates are establishing their exploratory committees and trying out their various dance steps on the Sunday talk shows.

2008 may be the most significant election of our generation for many reasons. Will the parties finally realign strictly by ideology as they did in 2004? Will the candidates hug the center and try to win by offering big tent solutions, instead of merely appealing to their own core constituencies? Will Democrats continue to make inroads among conservative-leaning groups like white men and married voters as they did in 2006? Will Christian evangelicals take a break from politics following an extended period of disappointment and disillusionment?

And what about the Hispanic vote? Will Democrats regain their traditional footing among the nation's largest minority (as they did in 2006) or will Republicans rebound from their 2006 beating among Hispanics (only 30%, according to exit polls) and get back to the significant inroads they had made among this group which includes so many social conservatives?

This is no small question. Just to put things in context , consider these figures: Hispanics were 5% of 95 million voters in 1996, 6% of 105 million voters in 2000, and 8.5% of 122 million voters in 2004. With a highly competitive election in 2008 and a heavy voter registration drive, we could be looking at an electorate that includes a Hispanic component amounting to 10% of 130 million voters in 2008.

Republicans took a drubbing among Hispanics this year. From George Bush's 40% share in 2004, the Republicans managed only to garner only 30% this year. Just think what that means in the context of huge growth in the numbers Hispanic voters. For 2008 that could mean a decline of 1.3 million Hispanic Republican votes in elections that have been won and lost by mere hundreds and thousands of votes. The impact could be particularly significant in such key competitive states like Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and Colorado, all of which include large Hispanic populations.

One key factor in Hispanic disillusionment for Republicans has been the party's right wing pushing for a tough position on illegal immigration. In the Zogby International post-election poll of 903 Hispanic adults, only 29% polled said they feel that the Republicans are better equipped to handle immigration. Twice as many favored the Democrats. More ominously for the GOP, only 30% said the Republicans represent the values they hold dearest.

There are some hopeful signs for Republicans, however. Almost one in four of our sample (23%) included those who identified as "born-again" or "evangelical" Christians - a growing phenomenon among Hispanic Americans. These represented only 19% of the Hispanic vote in 2004. When we closely examine this burgeoning group, we find that they are most favorably disposed toward the Republican Party in many ways. Two in three of this group give the party better marks than the Democrats in handling immigration and 56% say that the Republicans "understand them best". This group is conservative across the board, and if they continue to grow, they will provide the party with the ready base it will need to stay competitive in national elections.

But the Republicans have a problem with Hispanics. Just as in the 1990s the party was viewed as the mean party that hated all immigrants, today the Republicans struggle to find a middle ground among the anti-immigration conservatives and the growing Hispanic voter base. There is no doubt that immigration hurt the party overall this year. If the party is smart, it will compromise on immigration and work with the Democrats on an immigration reform that grants amnesty to guest workers, offers a path to citizenship, and at least tries to reduce the flow of new illegal immigrants entering the country.

And the fence will have to go. Back in the 1990s, I did a series of polls and focus groups among Hispanics to determine their potential for supporting Democratic and Republican candidates. I found a considerable amount of agreement with the Republican Party on social issues like abortion, gay marriage, and guns - but also a strong reluctance to vote for a party that promoted the anti-immigration Proposition 187 in California. But then the ice was broken, and (primarily local reasons), Hispanics supported Republicans like Michael Bloomberg in 2001, George Pataki in 2002, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. This set the table for President Bush's five-point gain among Hispanics in 2004.

Will the Republicans undue this? Will Democrats find a way to solidify the support they gained in 2006? These are not just good questions. They may be the most important questions in American politics as we head toward 2008.