In 1983, President Ronald Reagan was preparing for a White House reelection bid. A political ally suggested he summon Lionel Sosa, a Mexican American political operative from Texas. During their first meeting, Reagan said something that has become the stuff of political legend and a guiding principle for GOP candidates seeking Latino votes ever since.
“He hired me right there on the spot to run his Hispanic outreach, and he gave me the basis of our pitch,” said Sosa. “He said, 'Lionel, Latinos are Republicans -- they just don’t know it yet.'”
The idea that Latino voters represent a sort of lost Republican tribe in need of a GPS remains pervasive in the GOP. But Sosa and other Latino conservatives said that when the message is employed in its most obtuse form -- as it was inside Mitt Romney's losing campaign -- that philosophy can fail miserably.
“When I say that Latinos share conservative values, when Ronald Reagan said that, we mean the love of family, the love of country, a commitment to personal responsibility, to hard work,” said Sosa, the San Antonio-based political operative who helped Reagan garner 35 percent of the Latino vote, then a record-setting figure. He also broke new records for George W. Bush.
“Convey those things and you will have a lot of Latinos who nod their head and say,’Yes, yes, we do think alike.’ But from there, the Latino vote has to be earned just like any other,” Sosa said.
The Romney campaign went far to the right on immigration, adopting language that many Latinos consider insulting or threatening, and then launched an impersonal and late-in-the-game appeal for Latino voters, Sosa said.
Throughout the campaign, Romney advisers insisted that Latino voters, deeply concerned with the economy and struggling with high unemployment and foreclosure rates, were looking for a leadership change. Immigration, Romney advisers said often, wasn’t a top political priority for Latino voters. So, Romney’s economic recovery recipe -- slash domestic spending and the size of government, boost military outlays and limit taxes for the wealthy -- would resonate, Romney advisers insisted. It didn't.
Part of the problem is that many conservative candidates lack understanding of Latino voters, said Gary Segura, a Stanford University political scientist and co-founder of the polling firm, Latino Decisions. Latino voters often describe themselves to pollsters and campaign data-gatherers as religious. Some have connections to countries run by socialist or communist regimes.
But many Republicans fail to understand that most Latinos live in low- and middle-income families, Segura said. They often do not share the white evangelical voters’ affinity for religiously-guided public policy. And a large share of Latino voters support a bigger government with the capacity to intervene in the economy, provide educational aid, health care and other critical needs that help individuals get ahead or survive, he said.
“Romney suffered from both an outreach problem to Latino voters as well as a policy agenda that just did not resonate with the Latino electorate,” Segura said.
Early and unconfirmed exit poll data indicates President Barack Obama pulled in 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with 27 percent for Romney. The gap represents the largest between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates since 1996, when Bill Clinton won 71 percent of the Latino vote and former Sen. Bob Dole got 21 percent.
Had Romney managed to pull in just 35 percent of ballots cast by Latinos, Obama would have lost the popular vote, Segura said.
The GOP failure shows that conservatives didn't acknowledge widely held Latino views about government, the economy, health care and other issues central to the election, said Israel Ortega, editor of Libertad.org, the right-leaning Heritage Foundation's Spanish-language website.
Republicans showed particular difficulty understanding how many Latino voters relate to concepts such as big and small government, Ortega said. In Latin America, the state is often one of the only entities with the resources to create, for instance, an oil and gas industry and related jobs. So a U.S. candidate running on a mantle of small government and reduced spending won’t immediately attract Latino voters, Ortega said.
“This is where I think that conservatives are really going to have to invest some time and resources over the next four years,” said Ortega. “Really getting out there and helping people to understand that in this country, private enterprise and limited government have been essential to prosperity.”
Clarissa Martinez de Castro, the National Council of La Raza’s director of immigration and national campaigns, said she doubts many immigrants arrived in the U.S. deeply invested in the idea of government-run enterprises.
The number of Hispanic-owned small businesses in the U.S. rose from 1.6 million in 2002 to 2.3 million in 2007, an increase of 43.7 percent, according to census data. That growth outpaced every other demographic group and is a fact that conservatives have often trumpeted.
“I think what happened is much simpler,” said Martinez de Castro. “The primary problem for Republicans this year is the caustic language and position that they have taken, as a party, on immigration. This issue is so personal for so many Latino voters that it stands in the way of finding any other common ground. Republicans have this year simply been their own worst enemy.”