The GOP’s hunt for Latino voters

By Stephen Nuno
January 18, 2012

Jon Huntsman suspended more than just his campaign this week. He also put an end to any hope the GOP had of making strides in the Latino community.

And despite the stereotypes, because of the Obama administration’s policies, there really was hope. The administration has increased the number of deportations to nearly 400,000 people a year since taking office, according to ABC News. Likewise, in Secretary Janet Napolitano’s annual report to Congress, she describes the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to be at “record highs.” President Obama’s first term has featured twice the number of deportations as George W. Bush’s by instituting a systematic approach to immigration enforcement not seen since the infamous days of “Operation Wetback,” a program in which President Dwight Eisenhower deported over a million Mexican nationals, among them American citizens.

One might think this would be an opportunity for the GOP to make inroads with the Latino community, but the Republicans seem confident they can sit idly by as Latinos simply run into their arms. The GOP claims economics are Latinos’ most important issue, but with over half of Hispanics within a generation of the immigrant experience, migration is also a profound issue (and one with profound economic consequences). And on that issue, most of the GOP candidates have done little to distinguish themselves.

But Huntsman was different. He was perhaps the only candidate who managed not to offend Latinos throughout the primary. Huntsman rightfully saw the wall on our southern border as repugnant to American values. By arguing for tough border control, yet also supporting in-state tuition for the children of unauthorized residents, Huntsman was able to conceptually distinguish the dangers of an unmanaged border from the benefits of those who came in search of a better life.

Huntsman also comes from the same Utah Mormon milieu that produced the Utah Compact, a set of principles endorsed by civic and business leaders, and the LDS Church, that asks politicians to “adopt reasonable policies addressing immigrants in Utah.” The Utah Compact also opposes a policy that unnecessarily separates families, a significant acknowledgement of the harm our immigration laws do to Hispanic families.

Perhaps most important, Huntsman differentiated himself from other Republicans as the only cosmopolitan who was comfortable with diversity. A former ambassador to China, he has direct experience with diversity in languages and customs. As a person fluent in Chinese, he saw diversity as an advantage rather than a threat. Latinos are familiar with the benefits of bilingualism, and as we continue to engage and compete in a global environment, it will become increasingly important to the success of our economy.

But now the remaining candidates only inflame the underlying hostility against minorities in the GOP’s base. To make strides with Latinos, they’ll have to counteract that and support a more humane approach to immigration. And this is not just about making friends — it’s about winning elections.

If the GOP doesn’t incorporate Latinos in its base, it won’t hold power for decades to come. That’s not just my opinion. It’s also John McCain’s. Looking into the future, he told Chuck Todd: “I think that if not this election cycle, the demographics are that Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, even Texas will all be in play.”

The non-Huntsman candidates reflect an old world mentality when it comes to Latinos. The contest for the Republican presidential nomination has been a race to the xenophobic bottom. Each candidate has tried to show his bona fides by demonstrating his hostility toward minorities.

  • Rick Santorum told a crowd of white voters in Iowa: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”
  • Newt Gingrich doubled down on Santorum’s rhetoric and promised to take a similar message to the NAACP convention. (Gingrich also promised to change the citizenship clause of the 14th amendment and called for a law that would make English the official language.)
  • Rick Perry has touted the endorsement of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, who is currently under federal investigation for civil rights violations against Hispanics.
  • Even Herman Cain, the contest’s sole minority candidate, embraced the rhetoric, saying he would electrify the fence along our southern border.

Which brings us to Mitt Romney, who has been quick to remind Latinos of his family’s Mexican heritage. Romney has been consistently hostile toward Latinos. On the same week the GOP launched its outreach efforts into the Hispanic community, Romney flaunted the endorsement of Kris Kobach, a central character in the anti-immigrant wave of laws in Arizona and Alabama. Kobach is promoting a system so ominous and hostile that it would force immigrants and their families to “self-deport.” Romney has also promised to veto the Dream Act if Congress passes it.

This rhetoric is having a debilitating effect on the GOP’s ability to get its message across to Latinos. A polling firm that specializes in Latino political attitudes, Latino Decisions, has been tracking Latinos’ trust of the political parties as well as their views on how well the parties are reaching out to them. In their surveys, Latino Decisions asks: “Who do you trust more to make the right decisions” regarding several important issues, such as the economy, housing, immigration and education (you’ll see each category listed along the X axis of the graph below). They also ask whether the parties are “currently doing a good job of reaching out to Hispanics.”

What the surveys found: While Latinos are less satisfied with the Democratic Party’s efforts to reach out to them, they still overwhelmingly trust the party to address issues that are important to them. By contrast, Latinos’ low trust of the GOP has been consistent. Under no relevant issue did they show any affinity for the GOP, but despite their distaste for President Obama’s immigration policies, Latinos are pleased with Democrats.

If the GOP is to push back against numbers like these, it will need to recruit Hispanics themselves to lead the party forward.

It’s not as though the GOP is lacking conservative-minded Latino leaders. Senator Marco Rubio and Governors Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez are all present. But they will occasionally need to break ranks with the party message if they are to move the GOP in a direction that does not view Latino cultures as a threat. The next time one of their colleagues suggests shooting immigrants like feral pigs, they should be the first and loudest to object.

Perhaps the Republican nominee can salvage his relationship with Latinos by inviting Rubio to be his running mate. While Rubio is of Cuban descent and still relatively unknown by Hispanics, he may be able to build a relationship — however superficial — with Latinos. His comfort with bilingualism, charming personality and strong relationship with the GOP base make him an ideal candidate.

As a descendent of refugees, Rubio is the beneficiary of immigration policies designed to maximize his contribution to the country. But his message so far has been difficult to pin down. While Rubio blames the crop of individual states’ stringent anti-immigration laws on the federal government’s inability to fix the system, he has also called on the party to tone down the rhetoric.

With Huntsman gone, the GOP has said good-bye to an important potential bridge into the Hispanic community. With options dwindling, a Vice-President Marco Rubio could be the GOP’s best option in a sea of dwindling opportunities.

4 comments

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With the real unemployment rate at approximately 20%, the entire subject of immigration is a no-win for both parties.

There are only two viable options: Either a political party comes out strongly against any immigration (most Republicans)
or they try to take a nuanced position which involves enough deportations to pacify the anti-immigrant movement without
alienating Latino voters.

At this time, a majority of Americans feel that the current system of “make believe” immigration laws is a
failure, and perhaps 60-70% of them would vote for a policy of zero immigration.

This is the political reality, and I do not expect it to change until unemployment drops substantially.

Posted by dave_94302 | Report as abusive

You should give Ron Paul a second look. He polls highest among non-whites against Obama. He gets 25% of their vote, much more than any other Republican:
http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2011/images  /12/20/rel20c.pdf

His position about Birthright citizenship is actually pretty fair considering he thinks the real problem is our floundering economy. He thinks we need to actually increase LEGAL immigration because he knows companies that need to have legal employees. The only reason he wants to stop the birthright issue is because it has been changed because of the rise of our welfare system. And very few other countries actually have a law like ours.

He also doesn’t think it’s realistic to deport millions of people. This is why many Hispanics are becoming his supporters.

Posted by jlc27 | Report as abusive

Ron Paul is a die-hard proponent of the Hennry Hazlitt (Economics in One Lesson), Mises (anti-Socialism), and Hayek (The Constitution of Liberty) school of economics. As such, he is strongly against the main fallacy and misleading belief of the anti-immigration brigade that there is a limited job funds and immigrants take a share of the pie away from the current citizens. It’s not a limited closed end pie! Work creates work! Production creates demand creates more production and in turn more jobs. It’s a virtuous expanding cycle, which is helped not disturbed by proper immigration in search of work.

Posted by Sal20111 | Report as abusive

Reasons for unemployment: (a) growth has been stalled because the government is propping up bad debt and failed economic groups – the sooner they’re allowed to be liquidated, growth can resume (b) taxpayer resources are being diverted to wasteful wars, military bureaucracies abroad, propping up failed banks, wasteful Federal spending, (c) the government is blinding itself to the real economic problems just because it can get the Fed to print more greenbacks. The US direly needs a President like Ron Paul who is brave enough to take on the corrupt failed banking systems and the selfish, manipulative military industry complex.

Posted by Sal20111 | Report as abusive