Can Republicans salvage the Hispanic vote?

The US Hispanic population is booming – a group that's more likely to vote Democratic. This worries the GOP as Republicans look for ways to connect with this key part of the electorate.

John Amis/AP
Jonathan Lemuz, of Morrow, Ga., protests state bills which aim to crack down on illegal immigration, during a rally at the capitol in Atlanta, Thursday, March 24, 2011.
Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez speaks about her legislative victories during a news conference at Wood Gormley Elementary School in Santa Fe on Saturday, March 19, 2011.

Recruiting just the right candidates and raising gobs of money? Those matter. But the latest census data present a particularly acute challenge for the Republican Party: the dramatic growth of the nation’s Hispanic population over the past 10 years.

In 2008, President Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2010, a big Republican year, the Democrats still won 60 percent of Hispanic votes in House races. In 2012, if Hispanics continue to vote disproportionately Democratic, they could give Mr. Obama a critical edge in his reelection bid – especially in key battleground states with large (and growing) Hispanic populations, including Florida, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Census data released Thursday show the Hispanic population rose from 35.3 million in 2000 to 50.5 million in 2010, a 43 percent increase. Hispanics now constitute 16 percent of the US population, up from 13 percent 10 years ago.

Quiz: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

To academics who study the Latino vote, the Republicans face a demographic emergency, especially if they don’t change their tune on immigration.

“It’s a huge problem not only in 2012, but an even bigger problem in 2016 and 2020,” says Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle. “By then, it’s devastating to the Republican Party.”

Republican strongholds with big Hispanic populations like Arizona and Texas could eventually go Democratic, if the GOP does not change its approach, Mr. Barreto says.

Some party leaders believe it’s imperative to reach out to Hispanic voters with language that attracts and doesn’t alienate.

“Republicans need to make a better effort at connecting with Hispanic voters,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) wrote Friday in reply to questions from the Monitor. “They naturally share similar ideals and principles – freedom, family, an entrepreneurial spirit, and access to a quality education. The more connected Hispanics feel to the Republican community, the more likely they are to turn out in support of Republicans on Election Day.”

Former Governor Bush touts his new initiative, the Hispanic Leadership Network, which brings together Hispanics and Republicans around policy issues – and away from the anti-illegal immigration rhetoric that damaged the GOP’s image during the last election cycle.

Bush’s older brother, former President George W. Bush, had made headway in attracting Hispanics to the GOP. In 2000, he won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote and in 2004, 44 percent. He tried to enact comprehensive immigration reform – securing the borders and establishing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants – but failed to get enough congressional support. Obama has made even less progress than former President Bush on comprehensive reform, though he has tried to gain passage of the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant children.

And so while Hispanics are not totally enamored of Obama, they think far less well of Republicans. In a national poll of Latino voters conducted earlier this year for the group Latino Decisions, Barreto found that 52 percent said Democrats were doing a good job of outreach to Hispanics versus only 18 percent who said that Republicans were doing a good job of outreach.

Some Republicans prefer to see the nation’s burgeoning Hispanic population in a positive light, not as a problem.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” says Marty Wilson, a Republican strategist based in Sacramento who commissioned a poll this month on California’s Hispanic voters.

The poll found only 26 percent of California Latinos view Republicans favorably, while 62 percent see the Democrats favorably. Even if California does not get much attention in the 2012 presidential race – it’s solidly blue – Mr. Wilson believes the data would be similar in other western states that will get attention, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.

“Among Latino voters, the elephant in the Republican living room is immigration,” says Wilson, who says Arizona's tough immigration law is very unpopular with California Latinos. “If a Republican candidate campaigns on immigration in a negative context – say, like [former Colorado Rep.] Tom Tancredo – then they destroy any possibility of getting a significant percentage of Latino voters.”

But, Wilson continues, if a Republican takes a position on immigration that is both tough on border security but also “realistic” in providing a pathway to citizenship, “then you have the ability to pivot away from immigration and talk about other issues that are important to Latinos – like the economy and education.”

He also mentions three Hispanic Republicans who were elected to state office last November, a first for the GOP: Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. All three can be central in GOP outreach efforts to Latinos – or even potential vice presidential picks in 2012.

But none has the bully pulpit of the president. On Monday, Obama will take part in a town hall at a public high school in Washington focused on Hispanics and education. The session will be broadcast Monday evening on Univision, the Spanish-language TV network.

“Recruitment of Latinos by the GOP does seem to be an uphill battle,” says Stephen Nuno, a political scientist at Northern Arizona University. “But the good news for the GOP is that … this gap in trust can be bridged.”

Quiz: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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