While disagreement continues over exactly how well President Bush did among Hispanic voters in November, one thing is clear about the landscape that has emerged early in his second term: Hispanic political influence appears to be at one of its highest points in history.
A record estimated 6 million to 9 million Hispanic voters propelled a growing number of Hispanics to elected positions. While Hispanic voter support for the Republican president is disputed – ranging from 33 percent to 41 percent – all of the data still represent increases from 2000 election results and have spurred both the Democratic and Republican parties to more aggressively court what has developed into a powerful and influential demographic.
While the exact factors behind the apparently shifting political behavior patterns of Hispanic voters remains unclear, the historically high turnout attests to the influence that party registration and turnout drives can have on a changing U.S. Hispanic demographic.
"It was an unprecedented effort by Republicans to challenge Democrats for a group that has always been considered part of the Democratic base," says Larry Gonzalez, director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund (NALEO) in Washington, D.C.
Still, Republicans should be wary of resting on their laurels. Some polls, including one by the William C. Velásquez Institute, show that President Bush's gains nationally among Hispanic voters were statistically insignificant. "The real story, in my view, is the states, and in the states you saw churning," says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Velásquez Institute. "You have trends that are diverging. Some places are trending increasingly Democratic, like Colorado and Florida, and some places are trending increasingly Republican, like Texas and Arizona."
Moving quickly to solidify momentum, President Bush has sought to appoint Hispanics to some of the country's most influential positions. White House Counsel and longtime Bush confidant Alberto Gonzales, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, is set to become the country's first Hispanic attorney general. And in his role as commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez, former CEO of Kellogg, would oversee the Census Bureau's measurement of demographic trends and data.
Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Gutierrez join several high-profile Hispanics already on Capitol Hill including Anna Escobedo Cabral, former president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Corporate Responsibility, who was recently confirmed as U.S. Treasurer, and Hector Barreto, who recently completed his first term as administrator of the Small Bus-iness Administration.
Meanwhile, a record 25 Hispanics also are beginning U.S. congressional terms, including for the first time in nearly 30 years two senators: former Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar and former HUD Secretary Mel Martínez of Florida. According to NALEO, more than 230 Latinos were elected to state legislatures in 33 states.
This rising Hispanic influence is drawing significant attention from both Democratic and Republican parties. While the vast majority of those elected to state legislatures were Democrats, says NALEO's Mr. Gonzalez, both parties have been fielding more Hispanic candidates.
Some in the battered Democratic Party are taking heed. As the Democratic National Committee weighs who its next chairman will be, party operatives and politicians are sounding alarm over the apparent erosion of what was once considered a Democratic base. "Republicans have been committed, methodical, and are clearly winning the battle for Hispanic voters," wrote the five leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in a letter to their party colleagues in December. "If Democrats do not undertake a major paradigm shift in how they deal with [the] Latino vote, the future of the Party is in serious jeopardy."
Ultimately, analysts say, a key now will be whether the Hispanic community can capitalize on the increased influence and attention and translate that into policy progress. Analysts also note that GOP gains among Hispanics are the result of an eight-year strategy that began before President Bush's first election and will continue through his second term. So it also remains to be seen what happens to GOP support among Hispanics after he leaves the White House.
Now, with the election over, "the focus is going to be on policies and policy outcomes," says John Garcia, a political scientist at the University of Arizona. Mr. Garcia and other analysts agree that the important issues for most Hispanics are still ones traditionally considered Democratic – the economy, job security, education, and health care.
While President Bush quickly moved on at least one issue considered important to Hispanics – renewing his pledge to pursue immigration reform in his second term – some question whether it will pay off. "Latinos have always been mixed on immigration. They don't want immigrants mistreated, but they do not support open immigration," says Rodolfo de la Garza, a political science professor at Columbia University. "Immigration is not an issue that drives Latinos."
|THE 2004 HISPANIC ELECTORATE|
As debate continues over the exact amount of Hispanic support President Bush garnered in the November elections, another national survey has weighed in with its calculations.
An analysis by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that 41 percent of Hispanics nationwide voted for Bush, up 6 points from 35 percent in 2000.
The survey adds to the differing figures already in the public eye.
After some controversy over methodology, Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International finally estimated 40 percent of the Hispanic vote went to President Bush, up 4 percentage points from the 2000 election.
Data from the William C. Velásquez Institute in San Antonio showed a significantly lower estimate – 31 percent – of the Hispanic vote going to Bush.
Sampling differences and margins of error can account for some of the discrepancies, says Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.
Mr. Segal says his project is in the process of designing a precinct-by-precinct analysis of voting results in areas with varying concentrations of Hispanic voters.
The Annenberg survey notes that its survey "cannot resolve the dispute [among the different exit poll results]. But it suggests strongly that Bush made significant gains whose precise magnitude is uncertain."