How President Bush Won Latino Voters and His Party Lost Them Again
By Kenzie Bok ‘11
“George W. Bush’s first foreign trip as President was not to a traditional European ally but to a ranch in a remote region of Mexico, where he met with another newly-elected cowboy president: Vicente Fox.” As Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, University Professor and Co-Director of Immigration Studies at NYU, pointed out in an interview with the HPR, this symbolic gesture in 2001 signaled President Bush’s intention to make Latin American relations central to his policy agenda. He had just received roughly 34 percent of the Latino vote in the 2000 general election, a remarkable achievement for a Republican candidate. Latinos had traditionally been considered, like African-Americans, a secure part of the Democratic base. In 2004, however, Bush expanded his support among Latinos to approximately 40 percent, prompting speculation that permanently increasing the number of Republican Latinos could be a surefire way to grow the Republican base.
By 2008, however, partisans on both sides of the aisle agree that this trend has reversed. A slow trickle of Latinos back towards Democrats in 2006 became a flood in 2007 after House Republicans defeated a bill, advocated by President Bush, which would have paired stronger border security with a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants already in the country. The decrease in Latino support for the GOP ticket this year begs the question of whether Bush’s temporary inroads will leave any lasting legacy that could help to expand the Republican base. Unfortunately for the Republicans, the party’s recent shift towards trumpeting deportation and anti-immigrant rhetoric seems to have not only reversed Bush’s advances in bringing Latinos into the Republican Party but also rendered this success unlikely to be repeated in the near future.
The Economy & “Family Values” Why Latino Support Can “Swing”
The apparent susceptibility of the Latino vote to Republican courtship can be traced to the priorities of the Latino voter, for whom immigration is often not the most important issue. According to comments made to the HPR by Clarissa Martinez-De-Castro, director for Immigration and National Campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, “There is no question that the top issues for Latinos have for years been the economy, jobs, and education.” Alex Castellanos, a prominent Republican strategist and media consultant, offered the HPR a similar assessment, saying that, “In the second Bush campaign we found that the most accessible Latino votes for us were homeowners and aspiring homeowners. It wasn’t so much where you were from as where you were going.”
Social issues also matter a great deal to Latino voters. As Edward Schumacher-Matos, CEO and founder of Rumbo Newspapers and Meximerica Media, told the HPR, “When Republicans began pushing values issues, especially abortion, that really resonated with Hispanic voters. They stopped voting in their economic interest and stated voting for their cultural values.” The conflict between these two sets of criteria leads, according to Martinez-De-Castro, to a great deal of split ticket voting and openness to candidates of both parties.
President Bush & the Latino Vote: A Road Paved With Good Intentions
While the economy and family values may be of primary importance to Latino voters, immigration nonetheless plays a key role in their decision-making. In the words of Suarez-Orozco, “Latinos as voters behave just like everyone else, except in regards to immigration. There, they have more refined sensibilities and feel that a broken immigration policy is a greater threat to them than to others.” As Martinez-De-Castro put it, “immigration does not rank at the top of the Latino issue agenda, but it is a way in which Latinos gauge support and respect for their community.” While they do not agree on one position any more than does the rest of the population, they do expect a certain moderation of tone. This attitude explains Latinos’ concern with the shift in Republican rhetoric on immigration over the last three years.
In his first presidential term, Martinez-De-Castro explained, President Bush had a great deal of goodwill built up from his governorship of Texas. She and Schumacher-Matos both referenced Bush’s staunch opposition in the 1990s to the anti-immigrant demagoguery occurring in California under Republican Governor Peter Wilson as an example of a moment in which Bush gained the Latino community’s trust. Schumacher-Matos contends that the President genuinely intended to focus on immigration reform and Latin America policy early in his term but that the events of Sept. 11, 2001 prevented him from making headway on those issues. Comprehensive immigration reform had to wait until 2007, when President Bush finally sought to push it through Congress. With little political capital left to spend, however, he watched conservative members of his own party defeat the measure because of provisions allowing some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
Latinos and the GOP: Bridges Burned?
The fractious debate in 2007 included a great deal of anti-immigrant language. Martinez-De-Castro pointed out, however, that, “in the 2006 midterms you could already see immigration being manipulated to stir up the Republican base, and in November of 2006 you already saw Latinos leaving the ranks of the Republican Party.” In Schumacher-Matos’ view, the last three years have brought a shift in which “the Republican party has become more populist, more angry, and so anti-immigrant that it is taken as anti-Hispanic.” The Southern Poverty Law Center found that the recent increase in anti-immigrant fervor has lead to more hate crimes and racial profiling of Latinos. Schumacher-Matos even declared that “the Republicans have lost the Hispanic vote for a generation” because of the perceived anti-Latino nature of their tone.
Castellanos agreed that much of the Republican problem regarding the Latino community is tonal. “The Republican message about securing our borders needs to be coupled with a message that America is a land of immigrants,” he says. In his view, however, “the best Republican strategy to gain Hispanic votes is to grow the economy.” Far from accepting Schumacher-Matos’ dire predictions, Castellanos believes that Republicans can repeat Bush’s high-water mark by returning to the message of compassionate conservatism.
Looking Forward: A Challenge for the Party
Castellanos’ approach, however, is easier described than implemented. A declining economy is likely to only make anti-immigrant rhetoric more appealing to some Republican constituents. President Bush demonstrated how a Republican candidate whose campaign aggressively courts Latinos could garner significant Latino support, yet even his example and the nomination of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who supported comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, has not sufficiently moderated the Republican tone to reassure Latino voters. If individual leadership will not suffice, perhaps future defeat at the polls will convince the Republican Party to address the tarnished image of its brand among Latinos. Until that moment arrives, however, Bush’s legacy will have little impact and the Republican Party will not gain support in the growing Latino demographic.