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Which Way Will Hispanics Vote?

Originally published in: The Boston Globe

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A specter is haunting the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.  It is the specter of Latino voters defecting en masse to the Republican ticket this November.

Behind in the polls, the Democrats are nervous that George W. Bush may be on the brink of replicating, on national scale, the success he achieved in Texas winning the votes of large numbers of Hispanic Democrats.

It was for this reason that the Democrats sought so desperately to get Mexican-American congresswoman Loretta Sanchez back in the convention lineup after she capitulated to their demands to change the site of her fund-raiser from the Playboy mansion.

But to no avail.

After experiencing the Democrats’ strong-arm tactics, Sanchez refused to speak — leaving the Democrats embarrassed that their convention will feature only one prominent Latino speaker, actor Jimmy Smits.

The Democrats have good reason to be worried that blunders such as these may cost them with our community.  America’s 5.5 million Hispanic voters are concentrated in the key electoral states of Texas, California, Florida, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey.  About 35 percent of this constituency supports Bush — a significant shift since 1996, when Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole captured only 21 percent of the Latino vote.  With aggressive outreach strategies by the Bush campaign, this number may grow.

The focal point of Bush’s Hispanic strategy is his Mexican-American nephew, George Prescott Bush (“P” for short).  Dark, handsome, and proud to be Latino, “P” is the star of two advertisements, which air in both English and Spanish in states with large Hispanic populations (and large numbers of electoral votes).

In 1992, P’s grandfather, President George H.W. Bush, was much maligned by the media for referring to P and his siblings affectionately as the “little brown ones.”   This time around, however, P just may be the Republicans’ secret weapon.

While both parties seek to appeal to Latino voters by showcasing their prominent Latino supporters, the media’s treatment of this phenomenon has not been even handed.  The media criticize as mere “window dressing” the appearance of minorities on stage at the Republican convention in Philadelphia.  But the media barely mention, let alone criticize, the Democrats’ use of racial, ethnic, and gender quotas to compel diversity among the delegates in Los Angeles.

Contrary to the media’s understanding of the Republican convention, the Republicans were not trying to pretend that the membership of the GOP mirrors the diverse ethnic makeup of this country.  Rather, they sought to send a message to all Americans that Republican ideals are color-blind and that conservative policies, which seek to empower the individual, are more compassionate than entrenched, inflexible policies of welfare-state liberalism.

The diversity on stage in Philadelphia was not intended as a mirror, but as an invitation to those who have felt left out of the GOP -and whose votes the Democrats have taken for granted – to give the Republicans a try.   The Republicans know that they don’t yet have the minority vote, but they are working hard to get it.   The message of their convention was like that old Avis rent-a-car ad: “We try harder.”

It’s a message that may resonate with Latino voters, for whom the problem with the Republican Party has been largely one of tone, not ideology.  Disturbed by anti-Hispanic sentiment that shaped much of the 1994 campaign over Proposition 187 in California, Hispanics overwhelmingly supported Bill Clinton.

But while a majority of Hispanics are registered Democrats, two thirds describe themselves as moderate or conservative.  Primarily Catholic, with a growing evangelical segment, Hispanics tend to agree with Republican positions on key issues in the culture wars.

A recent poll by Zogby International shows that a majority of Latinos (60.8 percent) favor banning abortions except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger, and 82 percent support parental notification laws. Almost 70 percent of Latinos are against racial preferences and 80 percent support school vouchers.

Moreover, despite the claim by Democrats that Spanish-speaking children must be taught in Spanish by bilingual teachers, surveys indicate that most Latinos are against bilingual education and its segregationist impulse.

True, Hispanics as a group also support traditionally liberal measures such as increasing the minimum wage and expanding the health insurance safety net.   But if Ronald Reagan was able to sail to victory by winning the votes of working-class ethnic Catholics, George W. could very well do the same by reaching out to these typical Reagan Democrats.

The Democrats have every reason to be scared of Bush’s appeal to Hispanics.  Hispanics long to move into the mainstream of American society, and many Latinos are beginning to realize that outdated policies, such as bilingual education and affirmative action, have served only to marginalize our people.

Latinos already share Bush’s compassionate conservative philosophy and agree with his views on many issues.  And his track record of building coalitions with Hispanic groups in Texas speaks volumes about how he will address our community’s concerns at the national level.

The fact that Bush speaks Spanish, has a Mexican sister-in-law, a Catholic brother, and a proud Hispanic nephew may seem like mere window-dressing to cynics.  But for Hispanic voters -who have been disaffected more by the GOP’s style than its substance – these symbols, and P’s powerful ads, may go a long way toward bringing them into the Republican fold this November.

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