Hispanic political leaders, some Republican and some not, spent the last two weeks assessing and arguing over the Republican Party's failure at the polls on November 4. A key lesson of the election, many declared, is that the Hispanic vote is increasing in strength and will be crucial for any party, be they Republican or Democrat, that desires to win the top national offices. For some Republican leaders, that is a cause for worry.
The Power Of The Hispanic Vote
In the 2008 national election, Hispanic votes climbed to 9 percent of the total votes cast, up from 8 percent in 2004, according to exit polls by Edison Media Research posted on CNN's Web site. That number remains below the actual share of the population that is Hispanic -- 15 percent -- but political analysts of all stripes recognize that the Hispanic vote is no longer a sleeping giant. That giant is awakening.
Despite the long-standing ties of Republican candidate John McCain to the Hispanic community of his home state of Arizona and his moderate approach to immigration reform, the Hispanic electorate heavily favored Sen. Barack Obama and his focus on "change." The Hispanic vote broke more than 2 to 1 in favor of Sen. Obama, with the president elect grabbing 67 percent to Sen. John McCain's 31 percent. Obama gained a sizable competitive advantage from the Hispanic vote.
Erica Bernal, director of political participation for NALEO, the National Associate of Latino Elected Officials, declared that the Latino vote had a significant impact in "reshaping the political map" by helping to decide the outcome of several key battleground states carried by President Bush in 2004. Bernal noted that "in Colorado, Florida New Mexico, Nevada and even Virginia the Latino vote helped Democrats put these states in the 'win' column." The Hispanic vote probably also flipped the state of Indiana from Republican red to Democratic blue, exit poll numbers suggest.
A Swing Vote?
Republican commentators are at pains to point out that the Hispanic vote this election was not a strictly partisan affair. It was driven by issues, the economy, and a dissatisfaction with the Republican brand. Neither party has a sure and steadfast grip on the loyalties of the Hispanic public.
For Frank Guerra, Hispanic media adviser for the McCain campaign, the Hispanic voter "is not an absolute party loyalist." The 2008 election offers strong evidence for Mr. Guerra's observation. Hispanics significantly shifted their preferences from the 2004 election. From 40-44 percent Hispanic support for the Republican candidate President George W. Bush in 2004, there was a 12 percent jump in favor of the Democrats this year.
"It's a very fluid population," Mr. Guerra said, "and it should be."
"Historically, upwards of 25 percent of Hispanics remain largely undecided going into an election day. And that's not because they are disinterested, it's because they are discerning. They are really trying to make the right decision. "
Mr. Guerra counts that as good news for Republicans. With the Hispanic voter not tied down by fixed party allegiances, the Republicans have a chance again in 2012 to recapture that vote.
But in addition, being a swing vote means the Hispanic community has increased leverage. Both sides have started campaigning and catering to the Hispanic population. In fact, said Mr. Guerra, "the Republicans going after the Hispanic vote did more to increase Hispanic power then almost anything else that has happened in the last 50 years."
Why Republicans Failed
For Hispanic Republican leaders and campaign advisers, three main factors injured the Republicans in their goal of gaining Hispanic votes -- inadequate outreach, a damaged Republican brand, and the extremely negative economic climate. One factor that was not a problem, they said, was Sen. John McCain himself, the party's standard bearer.
Danny Vargas, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said, "I still think we had a fantastic candidate in John McCain." He added that McCain has "always been a friend to the Hispanic community. He was a leader in some of the issues we cared about."
Hector Barajas, communication director for the California Republican Party, concurred.
"In this particular election we had a great advocate for the Latino community in Sen. John McCain," he said.
Lionel Sosa, a long-standing adviser to many Republican presidential campaigns, dating back to the 1980s and President Ronald Reagan, emphasized what he called the "damaged Republican brand." He noted that discontent with the war and very low approval ratings for President Bush combined with Hispanic dismay over the tone of the debate in the Republican primaries over immigration policy drove Hispanics from the party.
Over and over again, Republican Hispanic leaders emphasized the negative impact of Republican rhetoric around immigration issues. Nonpartisan surveys too revealed that Hispanic voters were overwhelming concerned about the issue of immigration. Bendixen and Associates, a Miami-based marketing research company that often addressee Hispanic issues, polled voters just prior to the national election. Its numbers reveal that 51 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics thought the issue of immigration was "very important," while an additional 40 percent thought it was "somewhat important."
Mr. Barajas agreed. "Immigration is a very important issue for Latinos," he said. "Every Latino, whether you are a U.S. citizen, whether you are the second generation, we all tend to know someone who has gone through the immigration maze."
Sergio Bendixen, head of Bendixen and Associates, summarized the research saying, "the immigration issue was important to all Hispanic groups and united them in the ways they framed this election." In his estimation, immigration was not the whole story, but worked in a dynamic way with other issues to shove Hispanics toward the Democratic Party.
"We feel that [immigration] is the issue that got their attention in this campaign, the issue that got them voting heavily in the primaries. But later on," Mr. Bendixen added, "the economy and health care became extremely important. But immigration played a very important role in getting them to reject the Republican Party and to begin the movement toward the Democratic Party by voting first for Hillary Clinton and then later for Obama in the final vote."
More than any specific policy, however, it was the tone of the immigration debate that offended many Hispanics. Mr. Guerra said that while some Hispanic Republicans supported a so-called "law and order" approach to immigration policy, even they "were turned off by the discourse." They were offended by "the way it Hispanics were being demonized."
Fernand Amandi, executive vice-president at Bendixen and Associates, made an even stronger case for the injuries that the immigration policy has inflicted upon the Republicans. He said, "The Republican Party embraced an almost suicidal posture when it came to the immigration issue. I think will cause long-lasting damage to their brand in the minds of Hispanic voters."
Mr. Armand concluded, "Why the Republican Party conscientiously alienated the fastest-growing segment of the electorate is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside of an enigma."
To go forward, said Mr. Guerra, the Republican Party is going to have to resolve this issue. "And it needs to be done in a way that does not alienate Hispanics who are here and who are voting." The party must do this to protect its political future.
"Because if they don't turn that sentiment around," he said, "they will continue to get this kind of low margin in the vote."
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