WASHINGTON — With Hispanics on the verge of becoming the nation's largest minority, the political parties are stepping up efforts to court Latino voters. But if history is any guide, many politicians will incorrectly presume that ethnic appeals, or a focus on supposed "Hispanic issues," hold the key to attracting more Latino votes.
Many political leaders - including a surprising share of Hispanic figures - often suggest that outreach to Latinos be based largely on speeches peppered with Spanish, events with salsa music, and an emphasis on immigration and defense of bilingual education, rather than on broader issues of concern.
To be sure, Hispanic voters have distinguishing demographic characteristics and share some concerns that many other Americans do not. Latino voters are much younger than the electorate as a whole.
Like other ethnic populations with many recent immigrants, they are particularly sensitive to intolerance and immigrant-bashing politicians - and have a special appreciation for the role of education in creating opportunity. Cultural signals can matter to them as well; speaking fluent Spanish and recognizing the rich Latin culture can create a more receptive audience.
But too many politicians assume they can offer ethnic rhetoric and cultural symbolism in lieu of sound solutions to problems. Hispanic voters, like voters overall, are most impressed by substantive proposals. And they respond best to messages designed for the general electorate.
The first false assumption is that a little Spanish can help build a Latino connection. Hispanic voters reward candidates who have mastered Spanish, but speaking bad Spanish can be seen as pandering. Focus groups last year found George Bush's and Al Gore's Spanish hard to understand; some advised them just to use English. Spanish is the preferred language at home for about a third of Latino voters, according to a survey of 12 battleground states by Greenberg Quinlan Research for the Gore campaign. But candidates need to know that a majority of Hispanic voters prefer English at home.
Hispanic voters are also like other voters in their priorities. The ranking of issues by Latinos and the rest of the electorate last year were similar, with education, Social Security, and healthcare emerging as leading concerns, although there were important differences in degree. Education, for example, stood out as the top priority for Hispanics in battleground states.
The economy was also of greater concern to Hispanics. Latinos are disproportionately represented in lower-paying and less-skilled jobs. They are more vulnerable economically and less likely to have benefits at work - and thus have many reasons to vote Democratic.
Notably, Hispanics gave a low priority last year to immigration. Among the battleground-state voters, immigration finished last among 10 issues, with just 6 percent citing it as one of their top two concerns. This is not to say that immigration is not a potentially powerful issue, particularly when some politicians adopt threatening stands against immigrants.
Nevertheless, research in 2000 showed that initiatives that focused on supposed Latino issues like immigration or made reference to Hispanics were generally less effective among Latino voters than messages that stressed education, healthcare, and retirement.
The Bush campaign last year was emblematic of the flawed assumptions of much Latino outreach. George W. Bush had high hopes for making inroads among Latinos. By appearing before Hispanic audiences and exhibiting elementary Spanish, he made some favorable first impressions. Highlighting education also helped Mr. Bush identify with Latinos on a core substantive issue.
Ultimately, however, Bush's symbolic efforts, which also included showcasing a Hispanic nephew, came to define his outreach, and they were insufficient to overcome the Republican Party's historical disadvantage with Latinos. Bush received just 31 percent of the Latino vote, according to exit surveys, better than GOP nominee Bob Dole in 1996 but about the same as the first President Bush in 1992.
This picture of the Hispanic electorate is not static. As more Latinos become citizens and vote, the Hispanic electorate will grow substantially and become more difficult to characterize. Nevertheless, the lessons for Latino outreach from last year are likely to endure. The politicians that win over Hispanics will be those who speak to their concerns principally as Americans, not as Hispanics.
Mark Feierstein is senior analyst at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a polling firm that advised Al Gore's presidential campaign.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor