In the unforgiving algebra of presidential politics, the "Hispanic vote" has long been a constant. The major parties have both marked it down on the Democratic side of the equation, and then looked elsewhere for the variables that would help them win the White House.
Welcome to the new math of Campaign 2000.
This is more than an exercise in counting noses. The Republican candidacy of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, along with the changing demographics of the burgeoning Hispanic electorate, is challenging the orthodoxy of minority politics. Listen to the words of the two leading candidates, and what you hear are starkly different appeals to America's Latino population.
Vice President Gore is adhering to the tried-and-true rhetoric of grievance politics, telling Hispanic voters that the cards are stacked against them and that they need his help if they are going to achieve their dreams. Meanwhile, Bush pushes a message of opportunity and inclusion, celebrating their gains and promising to accompany them the rest of the way. The contrast may explain why Bush is picking up support from Latino voters, who now make up about 5 percent of the nation's electorate; his message appears to be one that resonates.
The distinction became clear a few months ago, when both candidates separately made major addresses to different Latino groups in California. On Sept. 2, during a major educational policy speech to the Latin Business Association in Los Angeles, Bush lauded entrepreneurs for "creating a Latino economic miracle," even as he insisted that America must close the education gap between whites and minorities. His most popular line of the afternoon was his call for higher expectations for Hispanic students and his reference to "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Typically, when speaking to Latino audiences, the Texas governor stresses Latinos' ability to overcome persistent obstacles. He deftly appeals to Latinos' pride in ethnicity while simultaneously declaring that they are integral--and capable--members of mainstream America.
Two weeks later in San Diego, Gore spoke to the annual U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce meeting. Before this audience of well-heeled Latino business executives, the vice president delivered an impassioned defense of affirmative action in a state whose voters abolished racial preferences by an overwhelming margin three years ago. This approach flies in the face of advice from the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group that helped catapult Bill Clinton into the White House. The DLC has urged Democratic candidates to abandon grievance politics for a new "politics of aspiration." But the Gore campaign believes it can use the cause of minority alienation--which certainly still exists--to create party loyalty.
But much has changed in Latino America in the past decade--particularly in Texas, California and Florida, the big Electoral College states where the Latino vote has become both sizable enough and potent enough to swing elections. What worked in the past may not work as well this time around.
When Bush won a historic 40 percent of Texas's Hispanic vote in his 1998 reelection campaign for governor, political analysts called it a victory for Big Tent Republicanism. And indeed it was. But the other, less-heralded winners were Latino voters themselves. Traditionally a Democratic constituency, Texas Hispanics had become accustomed to feeling ignored by statewide candidates from both parties, although they accounted for 13 percent of the state's voters in the 1998 election. Democratic campaigners have tended to take their votes for granted, while Republican campaigners have often regarded their support as a lost cause. The unintended consequence of Bush's strong showing among Latinos has been to make the battle for their votes more competitive--and more coveted--than ever before.
At the same time, it would be a big mistake to think that Bush's unprecedented Latino support foreshadows a wholesale mutiny from the Democratic Party--in Texas or elsewhere. Farther down the ballot in state and local races, most Texas Latinos held to tradition in 1998 and voted Democratic. But in a sign of growing voter sophistication, Latinos in many parts of the country are beginning to split their tickets and vote candidate over party. In Florida, for example, the Cuban-American electorate can no longer be counted on to vote a straight GOP ticket. While Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush was capturing 85 percent of the Cuban-American vote last year, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham did nearly as well, pulling in 69 percent. Graham surely benefited from the power of incumbency, but the larger (and perhaps healthier) message is that Florida's Cuban-American voters belong to no one.
The huge question mark, of course, is California, where the state GOP alienated Latino voters in 1994 by sponsoring an ugly, racially tinged campaign to ban benefits to illegal immigrants. Since then, newly energized Hispanic voters have been punishing Republicans at the polls, inspiring predictions that the GOP has forfeited any chance of cultivating Latino support for at least a generation. That spells trouble in a state where the Latino population makes up 14 percent of the electorate and is growing.
But early polls in California indicate that the Texas governor may elude this backlash. A September survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research organization, found that while Gore still has a significant lead over Bush among Latinos, the vice president does not command the overwhelming margins that other Democrats have received in recent elections. Indeed, the poll shows Gore's Latino support slipping 11 percentage points in the last 10 months as Bush's campaign has picked up steam.
While nobody is predicting that Bush will win an outright majority of California's Latino vote, it is dawning on Democrats that the days have passed when they could treat the support of this electorate as a given. Nationwide, what this means is that the Gore campaign will have to spend unexpected amounts of time and money courting a constituency that, according to exit polling, voted 72 percent for Clinton just three years ago. So far, however, the Gore camp's response to this nascent GOP threat seems to register somewhere between inertia and arrogance.
The Democratic strategy--appealing to a sense of grievance--is based on the premise that it is easier to entice voters to the polls by offering to protect them from negative forces than by offering a coherent vision of the future. In very real terms, the Democrats have been responsible for the lion's share of policies that have contributed to Latino civil rights and mobility. But as more Hispanics climb off the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, many want to hear about the best path to socioeconomic success, not about the obstacles that stand in their way. Indeed, survey after survey shows that Mexican Americans--who make up nearly two thirds of the U.S. Latino population--are actually more likely to trust government and be optimistic about the future than are Anglo-Americans. A September poll by Univision, the Spanish-language television network, found that 88 percent of Hispanics believe that the American dream is within their family's reach.
What do Hispanics mean when they talk about the American dream? According to the same survey, their top three definitions include sending their children to college, buying a home and sharing money with their family. In other words, today's mainstream Hispanic dreams closely resemble the upwardly mobile Anglo aspirations of the post-war years. As the governor of a state with an ascendant Latino population, Bush understands this. The Democrats must shift gears to adapt to Latino aspirations. They must play to Latinos' strengths instead of their weaknesses.
This may be harder than it sounds in a primary season in which Gore is trying to outflank Democratic rival Bill Bradley on the left. Recent statements by Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile, indicate that neither Latinos nor the politics of aspiration are a top priority in the vice president's camp. When listing the "four pillars" of the Democratic Party, Brazile rattled off African Americans, labor, women and "other ethnic minorities." It is telling that Latinos, the fasting-growing electorate in the country, seem largely an afterthought on Brazile's list.
Before the GOP gets too excited, however, it should remember that much of Bush's relative success with Hispanic voters is specific to the Texas governor himself. Still, it does provide a blueprint for future campaigns. Unable to run on a solid record of accomplishments for Hispanic constituents, Bush's gubernatorial campaign courted Latinos with heavy symbolism. His Latino-targeted TV and radio ads, which ran in both English and Spanish, stressed the commonality of values between Texas Anglos and Mexicans. While soft-selling the Bush "name brand," the spots all revisited the message that the hard work, pride and strong family values of Mexican Americans are quintessentially Texan. The rhetoric of reconciliation goes a long way in a state where the Alamo is still the dominant historic motif. For the party that gave us Richard M. Nixon's Southern strategy--using racial "wedge" issues to drive white Democratic voters to the GOP--this new approach is nothing short of remarkable.
Massive immigration over the past two decades has changed the U.S. Hispanic population from a predominantly U.S.-born group to a heavily immigrant group today. Interestingly, however, the immigrants may be the most difficult to reach with old-fashioned Democratic Party rhetoric. As relative newcomers to the United States, references to civil-rights-era politics carry much less weight with them.
Gore campaign officials like to remind journalists that Bush and the Republicans are Johnny-come-latelys to Hispanic issues, and they are right. There is little doubt that the GOP's sudden interest in Hispanics is opportunistic and a direct response to the boom in the number of Latino voters. But self-interest is arguably a more formidable agent of change than charity. While Bush repeatedly declares his need for Latino support, Gore and the Democrats are constantly stressing how much Latinos need them. This "charitable" approach can at times undermine Democratic support for issues that Latinos care about. Rather than viewing immigration as a humanitarian issue, for example, the traditional party of immigrants should see newcomers as fitting into a broader strategy for American prosperity. "Immigrants shouldn't be looked upon as the tired and the poor but as the strong and the industrious," says Frank Sharry, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
The Democrats don't need to develop an entirely new vision. Clinton's centrist formula, which combined compassionate government and an emphasis on personal responsibility, is tailor-made for a hard-working, heavily immigrant constituency. This year, however, it is Republican George W. Bush who has successfully stolen the New Democrat line.
Gregory Rodriguez is a fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation and at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy in Los Angeles.