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Bush Is Losing Hispanics' Support, Polls Show
Surveys Find the Immigration Debate Is Also Alienating White Conservatives

By Thomas B. Edsall and Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hispanic voters, many of whom responded favorably to President Bush's campaign appeals emphasizing patriotism, family and religious values in Spanish-language media in 2004, are turning away from the administration on immigration and a host of other issues, according to a new survey.

At the same time, separate polls show that conservative white Republicans are the voting group most hostile to the administration's support for policies that would move toward the legalization of many undocumented immigrants.

Cumulatively, the data underscore the perils for Bush and his party in the immigration debate churning on Capitol Hill, one that threatens to bleed away support simultaneously from the Republican base and from Hispanic swing voters, whom Bush strategists had hoped to make an important new part of the GOP coalition.

A survey of 800 registered Hispanic voters conducted May 11-15 by the nonpartisan Latino Coalition showed that Democrats were viewed as better able to handle immigration issues than Republicans, by nearly 3 to 1: 50 percent to 17 percent. Pitting the Democrats against Bush on immigration issues produced a 2 to 1 Democratic advantage, 45 percent to 22 percent.

The poll findings indicate that Republicans are likely to have a hard time replicating Bush's 2004 performance among Latino voters. According to 2004 exit polls, Bush received the backing of 40 percent of Hispanic voters, up from 34 percent in 2000. Other studies have put the 2004 figure somewhat lower, although there is general agreement that Bush made statistically significant gains from 2000 to 2004.

Even if the GOP does maintain Bush's margins among Latinos in 2008, another study found that Democrats are likely to achieve a net gain in future elections, simply because Hispanics are growing as a share of the electorate.

Ken Strasma, a Democratic strategist who specializes in using demographic data to target potential voters, and the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University conducted a study concluding that, if past voting patterns hold, the growing Hispanic population means that Democrats will increase their 2004 vote totals by nearly half a million votes in 2008.

"The impact is even stronger farther out in the future, as Hispanic vote growth would move two Southwestern battleground states -- Nevada and New Mexico -- into the Democratic column by 2016, and add Iowa and Ohio by 2020," the study said. If the 2004 election had been held in an electorate based on the one forecast for 2020, with all other factors held constant, the higher Hispanic vote would have given Democrat John F. Kerry a slight victory in both the electoral college and the popular vote, the study added.

A third study of all voters found that conservative white Republicans are the most adamantly opposed of all political and demographic groups to what Bush calls his "rational middle ground" policy toward allowing more undocumented workers to become legal and eventually to become citizens.

The proposed policy backed by the Bush administration would allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country if they will pay a fine, pay their taxes, learn English and hold a job.

In a survey by the Pew Research Center, conservative Republicans were by far the most opposed of any demographic group -- 83 percent -- to providing social services to illegal immigrants. Conservative Republicans were, in addition, the only group in which a majority supported a constitutional amendment barring citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States. They also supported the activities of citizen militias known as Minutemen that attempt to guard the border.

Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic pollster who works extensively in the Hispanic community, said the immigration debate threatens to undermine the substantial gains Bush made in the Latino electorate in 2004.

In focus groups, Bendixen said, Hispanic anger over some of the proposals before Congress has not crystallized into partisan resentment of the GOP, but the general tenor of the debate has prompted many Latinos to see "Bush as a friend who has let them down," and who has caved in to anti-Hispanic pressures by proposing to put 6,000 National Guard troops on the Mexican border.

For decades, Hispanic voters, with the exception of Cubans in Florida, have favored Democrats to Republicans, by as much as 70 percent to 30 percent. President Bush, a former governor of Texas who speaks Spanish, decided in the 2004 campaign to aggressively pursue the Hispanic vote.

"If you take immigration out of the equation, you'd have seen a continuous trend toward the Republican Party, to the more aggressive Republicans that have shown outreach to Hispanics," said Robert de Posada, chairman of the Latino Coalition.

Strasma said, "A few months ago, I would have predicted that they would make steady progress in the Hispanic vote, but with some of the rhetoric now I wonder whether conservative congressional Republicans might overreach and have a backlash."

In 2004, Bush's most pronounced gains were among the increasing share of Hispanics who are evangelical Christians. In addition, Bush made larger gains among Hispanic voters who immigrated to the United States than among Hispanics who were born here.

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