Of the Republicans currently declared for president, we have four candidates hailing from states with high Latino populations (over 10%), two are border-state governors, one is married to a Mexican-American, another launched a conservative Latino news site, and one candidate’s father was born in Mexico.
While these tidbits of trivia do not paint a complete picture of the GOP candidates’ efforts to court Hispanic voters, they do highlight one reality: Latinos are an integral part of American life. According to the U.S. Census one out of every six people living in America are of Hispanic descent.
Already, the 2012 election has been marked by a renewed focus on courting the growing Hispanic vote. The first major political ads buys of the 2012 cycle talked about the dismal economy – in Spanish.
Republican groups, like Crossroads GPS and the Republican National Committee (RNC), have earmarked millions of dollars for political advertising in major media markets with a dense Latino population, pushing ads in English and Spanish. The Democrat National Committee(DNC) reacted by mimicking GOP efforts with their own multi-million dollar Spanish-language media buy targeting Hispanic voters.
For President Obama to claim victory in 2012, he needs heavy turnout from his base and a repeat level of support from the Latino voters. In 2008, Obama won 67% of the Hispanic vote while Senator John McCain only captured 31%. Since taking office Obama’s approval has plummeted among Latinos, losing as much as 30% since 2009.
This upcoming election will be about margins, small margins. An August 2011 Gallup Poll shows that as many as 12 states are in play. While logic would dictate many of these states will turn deep Red or Blue in the next 15 months, a core group of states, many with significant Latino populations, will likely be too close to call until the final hour. Some of these swing states include:
Florida (29 Electoral Votes) – 15% of eligible voters are Latino
Arizona (11 Electoral Votes) – 18% of eligible voters are Latino
Nevada (6 Electoral Votes) – 14% of eligible voters are Latino
New Mexico (5 Electoral Votes) – 38% of eligible voters are Latino
Colorado (9 Electoral Votes) – 13% of eligible voters are Latino
Keys to Winning Hispanic Voters
For the GOP to connect with Hispanic voters they must understand three key things:
1) Latinos are not a monolithic voting bloc and like all things in campaigns, politics is local. Hispanics in Florida are different than Latinos in Nevada.
2) Don’t change your message, but be culturally relevant and consistent. The last thing Latinos want is a slick pandering politician that says one thing in English and another thing in Spanish. (P.S. Most Latinos are bilingual.) Candidates must offer honest solutions to the problems plaguing Hispanics and all Americans.
3) Start now! Connecting with Latinos is about establishing a long-term relationship based on mutual respect. For too long “Hispanic Outreach” has been based on a politically expedient one-way relationship where some well meaning politician busts out the Mariachi band for a photo op on Cinco de Mayo and Hispanic Heritage Month, never to be heard from again. All Americans deserve better than that.
There is a lot more that goes into an effective Hispanic engagement strategy. It is important to have a knowledgeable campaign staff with experience in Latino civic engagement, communicate an agenda that speaks to issues personally impacting Hispanics and have an aggressive Hispanic media relations effort. Campaigns must deploy strong surrogates to deliver the campaign’s message in both English and Spanish. Yet, if the candidate doesn’t understand the three key concepts, voters are smart enough to know the difference.
The economy will be a major issue in this election cycle, as Hispanics have been hardest hit by the economic recession. Yet, connecting with Latinos is much more complex than a single issue; it’s about creating a respectful dialogue, especially on immigration.
Lets take a look at each of the declared GOP candidates and their campaign efforts to connect with Latinos. All who responded highlighted the importance of the Hispanic electorate. Yet, only two campaigns have publicly named specific individuals focused on Hispanic engagement efforts.
THE GOP FIELD
As the 2012 contest moves into full throttle, lets look at how each of the GOP candidates stacks up against the Obama campaign machine — in particular, their experience connecting with Latino voters and their political operation focused on courting this important swing vote.
The elder Romney, who served as C.E.O of American Motors and also as a governor of Michigan, was born in a Mormon colony in Mexico in 1907. At the age of three, George and his monogamous American born parents fled their Mexican home due to violence caused by the Mexican Revolution and became refugees in America. He told his story in 1959 in an interview with Time Magazine.
During his 2008 run for President, Romney’s campaign had a full Latino engagement operation with a bilingual spokesperson and a translated Spanish website. The candidate attended Hispanic events. He had a large network of Hispanic activists and bilingual surrogates. Mitt Romney’s son Craig, who is fluent in Spanish, was regularly deployed to discuss Romney’s agenda to Spanish-language media and Latino audiences.
In a 2008 interview, Romney Senior Advisor Alex Castellanos said, “You want to demonstrate to folks that you not only address the concerns that they have but you want to address those concerns in a language they speak.”
Recently the Romney campaign seemed to be ramping up its Hispanic efforts. Romney attacked President Obama’s failed record with Hispanics, pointing to the dismal job creation and weak economy impacting Latino families. The comments were made during the President’s appearance at NCLR’s national conference.
His 2008 efforts were not enough to capture the Latino vote or win the Florida primary. We are not quite clear what his 2012 Latino engagement efforts will include. … Requests for comment have not been returned.
An Amigo in Rick Perry?
Probably no other candidate in the current 2012 field has more experience with Latino communities than the three-term Texas Governor Rick Perry. As governor of the state with the second largest Hispanic population, nearly 38% of the state, he has personally dealt with U.S.–Mexico border issues and creating relationships with Latino voters.
It is a rapport he has cultivated over the years. Exit polls show that Perry received 39% of the Latino vote in his 2010 re-election campaign, a gain of 25 points from his previous election. While Latinos in Texas predominantly register as Democrat, a 2010 survey stated that 54% of Texas Latinos self identified as “conservative.” In the last midterm elections, Hispanics gave the GOP a boost, electing five new Hispanic Republicans to the State House and two to the U.S. Congress.
Perry has teetered on a political tight rope, balancing the interests of Texas’ growing Latino community and appeasing his conservative base, especially on issues of immigration law. Both sides have attacked him for either being too tough or too soft.
Speaking at the NALEO annual conference in San Antonio, Perry connected the economic success of the state with its Latino population, saying “It’s no stretch to suggest the future of Texas is tied directly to the future of our Hispanic population.” Perry highlighted his Latino appointees, the growth of Latino small business and rising Latino college enrollment, which has increased by 88%.
Being that the Perry for President campaign has operated for about two weeks, we are not sure what resources he will dedicate to connect with Latinos, especially those outside of Texas. We expect he will incorporate similar tactics from previous campaigns, including Spanish language media buys, speaking with Latino focused audiences, deploying surrogates and an assertive Latino inclusion strategy.
A Conservative (Latino) Thinker
As early as 2007, Gingrich hired staff dedicated to “Hispanic Inclusion” in the name of Sylvia Garcia at Gingrich Communications coordinating a variety of Latino focused efforts in English and Spanish. In 2009, he launched The Americano, a bilingual conservative Latino news site.
As the presidential campaign geared up, members of Gingrich Communications joined the Gingrich 2012 establishing a weekly newsletter to communicate directly with Latino voters, opened a “Hispanic Inclusion” headquarters in Miami, Florida and created a bilingual site, Para Latinos for Newt.org. The Gingrich campaign is only one of two campaigns to publically announce a dedicated effort to court Latinos.
Gingrich himself has taken Spanish lessons, speaks at large Latino gatherings and has appeared on Spanish-language media. The second interview he did after he officially announced his candidacy for President was on Univision’s Al Punto with Jorge Ramos.
Recently he hired Lionel Sosa, a Latino media consultant who has worked on several Presidential campaigns, including developing some of President Bush’s key messaging to Latino voters. Sosa said:
“To Newt, Latinos are a priority in his campaign and not an afterthought. When I first met him in 1999, he already knew as much about the Latino heart and mind as most Latino marketing experts. He’s right on the issues and the only Republican brave enough to confront the immigration issue head on, advocating more work visas for undocumented workers.”
Huntsman’s Florida Focus
Earlier this month, Jon Huntsman’s campaign announced the support of seasoned Republican operative Ana Navarro, who will serve as the National Hispanic Chairperson.
The Huntsman and Gingrich campaigns are the only presidential contenders to announce an official effort to connect with Latino voters.
“Hispanics are crucial to winning Florida,” said Navarro. The campaign aims to connect directly with Florida’s Hispanic voters by visiting local communities. The strategy was discussed during an English interview with Univision. Navarro served as chairman of John McCain’s National Hispanic Advisory Council in 2008. McCain won the Florida Republican primary with 54% of the Hispanic vote, giving him a decisive win during his fight for the GOP nomination. In the general, Obama won Florida with 57% of the Latino vote.
Jeb Bush, Jr., the son of the popular former Florida governor, also threw his support behind Huntsman. While Bush, Jr. will help Huntsman reach young voters, he also heads a Florida Hispanic outreach group, SunPAC.
The addition of Bush and Navarro is part of a continued effort to strengthen Huntsman’s ties to Latinos and is likely part of a Florida strategy. At a recent Miami press conference announcing his new Hispanic endorsers, the former U.S. Ambassador to China clarified his Cuba policy, including support of sanctions against the communist island. He has moderate views on immigration.
Huntsman has been slow to gain traction in the polls, including in Florida where his campaign is headquartered. That is in stark contrast to his re-election for governor of Utah in 2008 when he won 77.7% of the vote. While Latinos make up 12% of the state, they have a very low turn out rate, making up 2% of all Utah voters in 2008.
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann might be great at winning support with Iowa Republicans as demonstrated by her Ames victory. Yet, we are not sure how she will do with Latinos and voters nationwide. Minnesota Latinos make up 1.9% of all eligible voters in the state. Her stance on immigration issues scored her a B- with Numbers USA, their highest grade for all Presidential candidates, but her views might be a challenge for her in Florida and in the various western states. Bachmann is new to large scale campaigning. She has been criticized for her decision to skip the Florida straw poll, a key swing state that has made and broken many presidential aspirations.
Ames Straw Poll runner up Congressman Ron Paul told USA Today he places a “high value” on Hispanic outreach. In his home state of Texas, Hispanics are projected to be over 21% of the total share of voters. We aren’t clear what specific efforts he has in place to attract Hispanic voters; same applies for businessman Herman Cain, former Senator Rick Santorum, and former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer.
Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, is familiarly acquainted with the importance of Hispanic voters and issues dealing with the U.S.-Mexico border. His home state has the largest percentage of eligible Latino voters, 38%. Yet, like many struggling in the polls, he has a limited coordinated effort geared towards Latino voters. Michigan Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, who is married to a Mexican-American, has experience talking to Spanish-language media and has won the support of Latino Republicans in his home state. He recently launched a Spanish version of his web site.
Like all swing votes, winning over Hispanics will not be easy for either Republicans or President Obama. There is no doubt that the GOP has a huge opportunity to gain traction with Hispanics frustrated with the dismal economy and disillusioned by the President’s broken promises.
The GOP should learn from its past experience with Hispanics to ensure success in the future. If it doesn’t, the Presidential bid will remain a wish, at least for another four years.
You can read more from Bettina Inclan at her blog.