Republicans Develop a Three-Pronged Latino Strategy

While Democrats practice benign neglect

By Dr. Victor M. Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: January 13, 2004

Republicans Develop a Three-Pronged Latino Strategy

"We can't survive as a party without getting more of the Hispanic vote," said Matthew Dowd, a pollster and senior adviser to the RNC. (Jeff Zeleny, Chicago Tribune, 2002)

Recently, following Matthew Dowd?s leadership, the Republican National Committee sent out its operatives to develop local strategies to, among other things, bolster support for Republican candidates in mid-term elections. Back in January 2002, when the news about the Republican efforts to learn Spanish in order to gain some symbolic advantage over the Democratic traditional hold of the Latino vote, the Democratic Party?s response was a glib remark. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic party Chairman then said: "They say they plan to teach RNC members to speak Spanish, and I think that's great, Hispanic communities should be able to hear in their native tongue about the Republican policies designed to help the special interests at the expense of working families."

While the Republican Party has traditionally allied itself to corporate and business interests it has also shown a remarkable ability to shape its message so that it taps into some core values that are central to the Latino community. The reality, as the Latino National Political Survey (1990), the most comprehensive political survey of Latinos has shown, Latinos are social conservatives and economic liberals. They straddle the liberal/conservative dichotomy that is so popular in mainstream political discourse.

In many ways, the Republicans seem to be more serious than the Democrats in experimenting with new political forms and policies as a way of creating a beachhead in the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States.

According to the Current Population Survey Report (2002) in 1988, only 3,710,000 Latinos showed up for the presidential elections. These constituted 28.8 per cent of all Latinos registered to vote. By the 2000 presidential elections, the number of Latino voters had risen to more than five and a half million voters or 27.5 per cent of Latino registered voters. So while there were more Latinos able to vote, a smaller number actually voted. In addition, the percentage of those who voted in the 2000 elections represented a smaller percentage of those that were registered than was the case in the 1988 elections. In other words, the rate of registration of Latino voters lagged behind the tremendous population growth experienced by this community. In 1988 35.5 per cent of Latinos were registered to vote; in the year 2000 that percentage declined to 34.9 percent.

This decline in proportional political participation occurs at a time in which the Latino community is becoming a larger share of the nation?s population. From the 1990 census to the 2000 census the Latino population grew 57.9 percent, from 22.4 million to 35.3 million in the year 2000. Today more than 13.2 percent of the United States population (37 million) is Latino.

Latinos, just like other Americans are not running in droves to the polling polls. In the study by Thomas Patterson, ?the Vanishing Voter? (2002) the crisis of the electoral system is revealed as increasing number of Americans stay home during the electoral process. Since the 69.3 percent turnout in 1964 to the 54.7 of registered voters (Current Population Survey, 2002) who showed up at the poll in the 2000 elections, millions of U.S. voters are abstaining from expressing their political will. Latino political behavior, despite earlier expectations, is following this trend. The reasons for this trend revolve around the role of political parties in mobilizing the American voter.

Many prominent liberal Democrats, including Jesse Jackson, have talked about the need for focusing on economic issues as a uniting factor. While economic issues are important, especially for a working class community like the Latino population that is feeling the weight of the jobless economic recovery, the reality is that a more focused effort is needed. The reality is that what is needed is a massive effort to mobilize Latino voters from the grassroots.

Martha Menchaca in 1994 did a political ethnography of five diverse Latino communities around the nation and concluded that the most important factor that explained the higher electoral participation of the Cuban community, which traditionally votes Republican, is the role of local political party effort to deliver the Latino vote.

More recently, a study by Puerto Rican sociologist Carlos Vargas Ramos attempts to explain the paradox of Puerto Rican electoral participation in the United States. Puerto Ricans living in the island have electoral participation rates of close to 80 per cent, however, when they emigrate and locate themselves in New York or Chicago their electoral participation rates dramatically decline.

Puerto Ricans are United States? citizens so what accounts for their low electoral participation? Just like Menchaca argued in her study, the common variable is the role of local political organization in mobilizing this electorate. Or more aptly, the failure of the Democratic Party to actively lead efforts to mobilize its core constituency.

In California, and particularly since 1996, the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (now Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana) participated in joint efforts with labor unions, churches and other community organizations to mobilize the Latino immigrant vote in Southern California. They facilitated the process of naturalization of non-citizens, they educated the newly-naturalized Latino U.S. citizens about the political process and they mobilized them effectively, bringing thousands of new Latino voters to the polls.

Loretta Sanchez, the first Latina congresswoman was elected in Orange County, California, defeating Republican Congressman Robert Dornan. A Latino Democratic state assemblyman, Lou Correa was elected, and Latinos became the majority in school boards and city councils in some cities of South Orange County. In sum, it seemed that Latino organizations had found an effective strategy for political empowerment.

An important characteristic of this strategy was that the role of the Democratic Party in this process was a very small one, although they reaped the benefit from the growth of Latino Democrats in Southern California. The main effort at mobilizing the Latino voters was the outcome of organizations outside the Democratic party organization.

The Republican party has begun to effectively counteract the Latino grassroots strategy while using some of the same tactics. Given the absence of a Democratic Party's vigorous campaign to mobilize and energize the Latino voter, the Republican right wing is beginning to fill this void. National Latino organizations like the Latino Coalition together with local church-based efforts are beginning to develop grassroots efforts that are beginning to pay off.

Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger received a plurality of Latino votes despite former Gov. Davis? political pandering the Latino vote with the driver?s licence for undocumented immigrants. Local Republican organizations are placing Latino candidates whenever a Democratic Latino candidates are participating. They recently elected Bonnie Garcia, a Republican Latina woman (who is a Puerto Rican) to the state assembly.

Recently in Santa Ana, Orange County they were able to recall Nativo Lopez, national director of the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, from the local school board. In the 2000 elections, the Santa Ana school board had a Latino majority for the first time in a century. Today it doesn?t. A local Protestant congregation has served the role of the organizing site for a number of conservative initiatives that have led to the election of Republican candidates and the defeat of Latino democrats.

The Republicans are learning that grassroots efforts are very effective with Latinos, a predominantly working class community which holds conservative social values but is also supportive of liberal economic policies.

Nationally, the Republican Party website has a more developed Spanish section, with a theme ?Abriendo Caminos? (Opening the Way) while the Democratic Party has an unattractive ?Spanish? section. Recently, the Republican Party initiated a three-pronged effort to attract and channel the Latino vote to its fold. Republicans are beginning to understand that the Latino community is not an amorphous, homogenous population. Mexicans, who constitute more than 60 per cent of all Latinos tend to be interested in issues about immigration, Puerto Ricans? strong connection to the island tends to keep them interested in the political status of their homeland and Cubans, while the smallest group of Latinos, wield a considerable amount of influence because of their economic status and strategic relationship with the Republican Party in Florida. Cubans also wield a significant amount of power in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

In response to these diverse interests, the Republican Party recently presented a program to reform immigration laws that, while modest, at least opens a forum for discussion of an issue that was dead after 9/11 and places the party as an advocate for immigrant rights. The immigration initiative has received strong criticism from the right for going too far and from some sectors of the Democratic Party for not going far enough. The National Council of La Raza took the strongest stance against the Republican immigration initiative while the League of Latin American United Citizens, Mexican American Political Association, and Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana took a middle of the road stance welcoming the dialogue but criticizing the weaker sections of the initiative. The conservative Latino Coalition came out strongly in favor of the proposals.

On December 14, 2003, President Bush named a 16-member panel, headed by Ruben Barrales, White House director of intergovernmental affairs, to oversee a process to enable Puerto Rico to finally address its colonial political relationship with the United States. In 2004 Puerto Rico will have endured 106 years of a colonial relationship where thousands of islanders die serving in the U.S. armed forces but yet are unable to vote for the Commander in Chief who sends them to war. While similar efforts by other presidents have been used for their symbolic effect, this one takes place with the increasing demilitarization of the island, a strategic juncture in U.S. and Puerto Rico relations.

Finally, earlier on October 10, President Bush created a ?Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba? to address the ?liberation? of Cuba. Recently, on December 5, 2003, co-chairs Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez convened the President's Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. This high level structure provides the Republican Party with additional symbolic capital in their efforts to maintain the high level of Cuban support for the party, particularly in the strategic state of Florida.

So, through a combination of building symbolic capital through these national efforts and their grassroots efforts in local Latino communities around the nation, the party is building the infrastructure to reelect George W. Bush. These efforts are strategically poised to help cement a victory in the 2004 elections by increasing Latino support in Florida, New York, Illinois, California and New Mexico.

New Mexico was a close race in the last election, although having a strong Democratic governor like Bill Richardson will aid Democrats in that state. However, the larger Latino constituencies are in New York, Florida and California. In New York, Republican Mayor Bloomberg, thanks to the incompetent Democratic Party strategy, was able to capture a significant percentage of the Latino votes, including the traditionally Democratic Puerto Rican vote.

With the Republican victory of Gov. Schwarzenegger, Republicans are in a position to capitalize and at least neutralize the Democratic efforts in California. But it is in Florida where these strategies will be tested. In the last few decades, Puerto Ricans, traditionally Democratic voters, have grown to more than half a million persons. In contrast to the Puerto Rican community in the northeast, they are a predominantly middle class and stable working class community with local community organizations and increasing political influence.

In Florida?s Orange County, a large Puerto Rican community has established itself in Orlando. This community voted for Al Gore, giving Democrats a victory in the heart of Republican Florida. As Jeff Zeleny in a Chicago Tribune article on January 27, 2002 said: ?In 1988, when President George Bush ran for office, two of every three Hispanic votes came from Cuban-Americans, who lean largely Republican. When his son ran in 2000, two of every three Hispanic voters were non-Cuban and Democratic-leaning.?

The Republicans know that President Bush won the votes of 35 percent of Hispanic Americans in 2000, while Al Gore received 62 percent. As it has been said elsewhere, if the votes are cast in the same proportions in the 2004 presidential race, Bush would lose by up to three million votes. Republicans are attempting, obviously, to change that.

In the meantime, the Democratic Party seems to again poise itself for another defeat.

About Dr. Victor M. Rodriguez:
A teacher in the Chicano and Latino Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach, he is working on a manuscript ??Si Se Puede?: The Mobilization of Naturalized Latino Citizenry in Santa Ana, CA.? He can be reached at

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