Austin, Texas — When George Bush told Americans to ask themselves if they were better off than they were eight years ago, Hispanic voters took the vice-president's admonition to heart. And in substantial numbers they answered that they are not. With recent studies showing marked increases in Hispanic poverty over the past decade, Hispanic voters apparently knew whereof they spoke.
The Bush campaign was quite public about its expectations of attracting 35 percent of the Hispanic vote. Yet according to exit polling completed by the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP) in three Southwestern states, about 3 of every 4 Hispanics chose the Democratic ticket.
In Texas, 82 percent of Hispanic voters chose Democrats Michael Dukakis and native Texan Lloyd Bentsen - up from 75 percent for Walter Mondale in 1984. In California, 75 percent went with the Democrats this year, while in New Mexico the number was 70 percent.
The exit polls showed that while many Hispanics agree with Bush on some of the issues he made a centerpiece of his campaign - abortion, the death penalty, and ``toughness'' on crime in general - it was over the economy that they and the vice-president parted company.
``On many of the issues Bush was trumpeting, they came out on his side,'' says Bob Brischetto, executive director of the Southwest Voter Research Institute, the research arm of the SVREP.
``But when it came down to casting the ballot, they voted their self-interest. Economically they've been losing ground since 1980.''
Over the past decade Hispanic poverty increased by almost a third, according to a recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Based on Census Bureau and Department of Labor statistics, the report shows that the poverty rate among Hispanics increased from 21.6 percent in 1978 to 28.2 percent in 1987.
``Hispanics have shared significantly less in the economic improvements of the past few years than other groups,'' says Robert Greenstein, director of the Washington-based nonpartisan research organization.
Some Republican analysts and others say one explanation for Hispanics' poor economic showing is that the rapidly growing immigrant population often fills the vacated bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
But Mr. Greenstein says immigration, while a factor, is not enough to explain the economic erosion.
``The most salient element is the significant decline in wages,'' he says - down $49 a week for Hispanic men since 1978.
Greenstein says that both changes in education levels required for good-paying jobs and erosion of the minimum wage have had ``very significant impact'' on Hispanics.
Another study done by Southwest Voter Research Institute shows that Hispanics have been hurt by cuts in government programs during the Reagan administration.
In 1979, 35 percent of all Hispanics with children who would have been considered poor under official criteria were lifted above the poverty line by government aid. By 1986, that number was down to 20 percent.
Recognizing the beneficial role such aid has played in their community, Hispanics in last week's exit polls came out 3 to 1 against cuts in government social programs.
``Generally as a group Hispanics have not been socially and economically mobile, and as a result they are not changing their party affiliation,'' Mr. Brischetto says.
``In the South and Southwest there has been much said about a political realignment, but that has been largely among the Anglo majority,'' he adds. For Hispanics and blacks, that realignment has not taken place.''