October 27, 2000

In presidential politics, Hispanics are taking on a new significance

By Dennis Farney and Eduardo Porter
The Wall Street Journal
October 23, 2000

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — "Hi, Al Gore's daughter!"

The cheery greeting rings out from a woman at a window as Kristen Gore canvasses for votes in a working-class Hispanic neighborhood here. In this Democratic part of the city, the signs of Vice President Gore's support are everywhere. As Ms. Gore, ruddy-faced in the bright New Mexico sun, works her way down a street of modest, adobe-style homes, an elderly Hispanic man walks up and hugs her. A grandmotherly woman emphatically promises her exactly the kind of voting she wants to hear about: "Democrats straight [ticket] — and that's it."

Hispanics are a significant reason why Mr. Gore, with a big edge among this group statewide, remains neck-and-neck with George W. Bush in New Mexico. Hispanics comprise 38% of the state's population, making this the most Hispanic state in the nation. In an election so close that every toss-up state counts, Hispanics also are why New Mexico — despite its scant five electoral votes — is a presidential battleground, why candidate Gore flew here yesterday to dedicate a new National Hispanic Cultural Center, and why both Messrs. Gore and Bush are running Spanish-language ads here.

There also is no better place than New Mexico to examine how the Hispanic vote has emerged as a significant factor in the stretch run, but not at all in the way once expected. The Hispanic vote is largest in two megastates, Texas and California, yet it doesn't figure to make much of a difference in either. Texas is clearly going for its governor Mr. Bush, so the state isn't really in play. Mr. Gore is comfortably ahead in California generally, and among its Hispanic voters specifically, so the Hispanic vote there doesn't seem to be much of a factor in either campaign's equation. Mr. Gore also is certain to carry New York, with its big Hispanic population.

Hispanics do count for a lot in other, less obvious places, such as New Mexico. It looms large in the critical swing state of Florida, of course, where Mr. Bush does well among Cuban-Americans, while Mr. Gore does better among the state's growing bloc of Central Americans. More intriguingly, the most intense battle for Hispanic votes is being waged in states that aren't heavily Hispanic at all and that are rarely even thought of as having a meaningful Hispanic vote.

In swing states such as Missouri, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, both parties are zeroing in on isolated pockets of Hispanics who they hope can make a difference in a tight vote on Nov. 7. "The campaigns are combing through the Yellow Pages, trying to find Spanish-language radio stations in states like Wisconsin," says Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant in San Antonio.

The upshot is that this year's campaign is offering a hint — though only a hint — of the impact the Hispanic vote promises to have over time. Nationally, the Hispanic vote is an awakening giant. In the past four years, the pool of potential Hispanic voters has grown 17%, while non-Hispanic voters have expanded less than 1%, according to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. By 2005, the explosively growing Hispanic population is expected to outnumber African Americans.

Right now, this growing bloc looks to be turning into a giant Democratic asset. A survey by Sergio Bendixen, a former Democratic consultant who now runs the polling firm HispanicTrends Inc., finds that Hispanics nationally favor Mr. Gore over Mr. Bush, 61% to 25%. Across the country, the Hispanic political class is overwhelmingly Democratic. There are fewer than 150 Republican Hispanic elected officials, says the association of Latino officials, less than a 10th the number of elected Hispanic Democrats. On average, over the past five elections, including the landslides of Ronald Reagan, the GOP received slightly less than 30% of the Hispanic vote.

Hispanics tend to register and vote Democratic in part because that is the tradition of many immigrant groups, in part because Democrats have tended to be more supportive of government programs that benefit many Hispanics, and in part because Democrats have struck a more immigrant-friendly pose generally in recent years.

In California, for instance, former California GOP Gov. Pete Wilson probably alienated a generation of Hispanics in that state by pushing Proposition 187 to bar undocumented immigrants from services such as health and education. Nationally, the GOP's popularity among Hispanics suffered when it sponsored legislation in 1995 that denied many federal benefits to legal permanent residents. Worries GOP pollster Lance Tarrance, who has conducted a massive Hispanic poll for his party: "The Republican Party has got to include Hispanics in our coalition — or we won't make it in the future. If George Bush is elected, you're going to see a fuel-injected effort from the White House" to woo Hispanics.

Some Republicans already have set out this year to reverse that trend, and they hope to pry away a significant chunk of Hispanic votes in November. After all, by some estimates Mr. Bush won from 37% to 47% of the Texas Hispanic vote when he ran for re-election two years ago.

Yet it is also clear that this year's election won't settle this battle for the loyalty of Hispanics but only set up a struggle to be played out in years to come. Both parties are trying to come to grips with the growing diversity of the nation's Hispanic population, which is divided into at least four distinct cultural groups.

Mexican Americans, about two-thirds of the total, represent the political battleground of the future. Alongside them, though, are Cuban-Americans, fiercely anti-Communist and pro-Republican; Puerto Ricans, who tend to be more dependent upon government programs and pro-Democrat; and a smattering of Central and South American Hispanics, whose loyalties are less certain.

The parties are finding the Hispanic vote not only diverse but also sometimes hard to mobilize. Hispanics don't yet have a tendency to turn out at the polls at rates that would give them their full potential power. This year only about 5.8 million Hispanics are expected to go to the polls — accounting for 5.4% of the anticipated total national vote — estimates the association of Latino officials.

All these forces are on display in the tug of war over the Hispanic vote under way in New Mexico. Here, as elsewhere, the Hispanic population is a complex mixture. Though this is the most Hispanic state, it gets far fewer Hispanic immigrants than do California, Arizona or Texas. Instead, in mountainous northern New Mexico, clustered around towns such as Espanola, old Hispanic families have been here for centuries.

Here, as elsewhere, Democrats have the overall advantage with Hispanics. A September poll by the officially nonpartisan but Democratic-leaning William C. Velasquez Institute found Mr. Gore leading among Hispanics in New Mexico by 62% to 21%. That is about the way University of New Mexico political scientist F. Chris Garcia sees the Hispanic vote going statewide. He thinks Mr. Bush will be doing well to get about 35%.

The New Mexico Republican party may have hurt itself by voting this year to replace, as national committeeman, the most prominent official it has: former Interior Secretary and Congressman Manuel Lujan. Though Hispanics constitute nearly 40% of the state's population, about 90% of New Mexico's delegation to the Republican national convention was Anglo.

Republicans here think they have a chance to fight back. They contend their party is a more natural fit when it comes to cultural issues. As Hispanics move into the middle class and depend less on government assistance and grow fonder of ideas such as tax cuts, the GOP logically should make inroads, just as it has with other immigrant groups such as the Irish and the Italians.

GOP Rep. Heather Wilson, whose district includes nearly all of Albuquerque, says she expects to receive about one-third of the Hispanic vote when she faces a tough challenge from Democrat John Kelly, a former U.S. attorney. "Hispanics are Democratic by registration, but they also tend to be Catholic, culturally conservative and family-oriented," she says.

This story was provided by the Center for Immigration Studies, Washington, DC center@cis.org http://www.cis.org

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