News Column

Tight Contest Casts Light on Hispanic Vote

Sept. 18, 2012
Hispanic Vote

Gaining even a sliver of Hispanic-American support could be crucial to either party in the presidential election, but especially to the Republican ticket, which is aiming its pitch in part at women.

In what seems a Herculean task, the Republican Party is mounting a major campaign to chip away at the Democratic Party's dominance among Hispanic voters, who could determine victory or defeat in the presidential election in several swing states.

And, perhaps even more surprising, a major feature of that Republican push is directed at Hispanic women.

With President Barack Obama and the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, running very close in the latest polls, gaining even a sliver of Hispanic votes could be crucial to either party -- but especially to the Republican ticket.

Smarting from an image as an anti-Latino party, the Republicans are turning up the spotlight on Senator Marco Rubio of Florida; Susana Martinez of New Mexico, the first Latina governor in the country; and Governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada. The Democrats, not to seem complacent, showcased Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles at their national convention.

For decades, the Hispanic vote has eluded and confounded Republicans. Except in Florida, where until recently conservative Cuban-Americans gave Republicans the edge, Democrats have had a lock on the Hispanic vote. At this point in the campaign, Mr. Obama holds a commanding lead over Mr. Romney among Hispanics, 68 percent to 26 percent, in a poll released Monday by the independent polling group ImpreMedia/Latino Decisions. The same survey found Mr. Obama's edge among Hispanic women to be even greater: 74 percent to 21 percent.

Against those odds, Republican Hispanic Outreach is trying to build a national network of paid staff and bilingual volunteers who operate at local and state levels, tailoring their message to diverse Hispanics with a focus on battleground states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

"It's our largest effort ever to reach out to Latino voters," says Bettina Inclan, who heads the Outreach program.

With an extra focus on women, she said last week, the campaign has enlisted Latinas to promote a friendly party image and sell its pitch through phone banks, door-to-door visits, fund-raisers and house parties.

"The message of this campaign really focuses on the important issue for women, the economy," she said. "The Obama economy hits women the hardest."

In this tough climate, in the Republican view, combustible women's rights issues like abortion, mandated insurance coverage for contraceptives and Planned Parenthood do not get top billing. How their view plays out, and whether it gains ground, is unclear. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll, released Friday, gives Mr. Obama a 12-point edge among women likely to vote.

Yet Ms. Inclan, a 32-year-old Floridian from a Cuban-Mexican family, said she had seen "an incredible increase all across the board for Mitt Romney."

"We're seeing more and more Latinas join the ranks of this campaign," she said. "Latinas really want change. Their big issue is to see that their families live the American dream that will be harder and harder to accomplish because of Obama's economic policies. That's why a lot of women, especially Latinas, are joining the Romney campaign."

On Monday, Mr. Romney spoke at the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce convention in Los Angeles. But his message was obscured by the controversy surrounding a video made at a private fund- raiser in May in which Mr. Romney described nearly half of Americans as "people who pay no income tax" and are "dependent upon government." At that same fund-raiser, according to another clip, Mr. Romney was heard joking that he would have an easier time winning if his father had been born to Mexican parents. It seems likely that such remarks would hardly ingratiate him with Latinos.

Before those comments surfaced, Vivian Bileca, a 42-year-old Miami mother of three who has not always been a party-line Republican, told me by telephone, "I felt comfortable with President Clinton because he was in the center, but now the Democrats are too far to the left. I see my children and feel that the Republicans can give them more, a better life." She recalled her Cuban parents. "I want to give my children more than my parents could give to me. Now my biggest worry is the national debt."

Another Floridian, Lida Mari Todd, a married speech therapist in her 40s, with two children, told me, "For my circle of women, our passion is for our children and husbands and parents. I fear for my children's future now. I've worked and worked so hard to make it, it makes my skin crawl to hear that 'You didn't make it on your own."' (She was referring to Mr. Obama's statement that small-business owners and entrepreneurs do not make it entirely on their own.)

"My mother came to this country nine months pregnant with me," Ms. Todd recalled. "I have that as an example, and my father held two and three jobs. They surely made it on their own."

Other Latinas take a different view.

"I would certainly vote Republican," says Estela Rizzuto, a Dominican American who is 41, single and works in broadcasting in New York. She came from a Republican-leaning family and "up until 2008, I was an independent. It wasn't until I watched Barack Obama campaigning that I felt compelled to switch and register as a Democrat." She added: "I particularly take issue with the current Republican views on women's rights and health care."

Mariola Pena, 38, a mother of three from Arlington, Virginia, grew up in a Republican-leaning Cuban-Puerto Rican family. "As a Catholic Latin American woman, I am conservative in many of my personal decisions," she told me in an e-mail. "But I choose a president whose politics protect the environment, respects international law and represents the United States as a global player, and whose economic perspectives strengthen the middle class, and who is aware of the rich diversity of this nation." That man, she said, is Mr. Obama.

Whether it is the Lida Mari Todds or the Mariola Penas who prevail among Latinas may well help determine who wins on Nov. 6. And whether this campaign sees Republicans making inroads into the growing Hispanic vote will be one interesting feature of Election Day, no matter who triumphs.

Source: (C) 2012 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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