Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) holds a strong lead over President Bush among the nation's Hispanic voters, with a majority rejecting the president's handling of the economy and the war in Iraq, according to a survey by The Washington Post, Univision and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.
At a time when Bush and Kerry are running about even among all registered voters, Kerry enjoys a 2 to 1 advantage over Bush among Latino registered voters. Hispanics give Bush lower approval ratings than the overall population does, and the poll shows that the bulk of the Latino community continues to identify with the Democratic Party.
The findings suggest that, at this point in the campaign, Bush is falling short of his goal of notably improving on the 35 percent share of the Hispanic vote he received four years ago, although his advisers said they believe he is still on track to do so. Kerry advisers, in contrast, said they are determined to keep Bush from winning as much of the Hispanic vote as he did in 2000.
Bush enjoyed solid Latino backing as governor of Texas, particularly in his 1998 reelection campaign. In the past four years, his political advisers and the Republican National Committee have worked assiduously to court the Hispanic community, which they see as a key not only to the president's reelection this fall but also to the long-term strength of the Republican Party.
There were some signs in the poll that suggest the GOP has begun to make additional inroads among Hispanic voters, but opposition to Bush's policies appears to be an obstacle to more significant growth. A third of all Latino Republicans say they were once Democrats, while few Republicans have switched allegiance. And an increasing share of wealthier Hispanics identify with the GOP than in the past.
Competition for Hispanic voters remains fierce. Latinos now outnumber blacks, rank as the fastest-growing minority group in the country and are less solidly attached to the Democratic Party than are blacks. The 2000 census counted more than 35 million Hispanics in the United States, a 50 percent increase in one decade.
Three-quarters of all Latinos live in high-growth western and southern states, and their political influence has grown with their numbers. Although their clout has been muted by low rates of turnout, the number of Hispanics who voted in 2000 represented a 20 percent increase over 1996 and they accounted for about 5 percent of the overall electorate.
The survey of 1,605 Latino registered voters was sponsored by The Post, the Univision Spanish-language television network and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute (TRPI), an independent think tank affiliated with the University of Southern California.
Hispanic voters in the 11 states with the largest Latino electorates were interviewed by telephone July 6-16. Together, these states are home to nearly nine out of 10 Hispanic voters living in the United States. They include the key battlegrounds of Florida, New Mexico and Arizona, where Latino voters may play a decisive role this fall, as well as states such as Texas and California, which have significant Hispanic populations but are not considered competitive.
As with voters nationally, pocketbook issues and national security lead the list of Latino concerns this election year, the survey found. A third -- 33 percent -- rated the economy as their top voting issue. Unlike among voters nationally, education came in second among Latinos (18 percent), surpassing terrorism (15 percent) and the war in Iraq (13 percent). Nationally, slightly fewer voters name the economy (28 percent) as their top voting issue while slightly more say the war in Iraq (20 percent) or terrorism (19 percent) is most important to them. About one in 10 (12 percent) named education.
Latino voters who were surveyed were sharply critical of the war in Iraq. More than six in 10 -- 63 percent -- said the war was not worth fighting, a view shared by slightly more than half of all voters nationally. Fewer than a third of all Latinos and fewer than half of all voters believe the war justified its costs.
Latinos also are more pessimistic about the war on terrorism than the overall population is, with 37 percent saying the United States is winning and 40 percent saying it is losing.
The survey found that Kerry claimed support from 60 percent of all Latino registered voters in the 11 states surveyed while Bush had 30 percent. Two percent supported Ralph Nader, an independent, and 8 percent were undecided. Among all voters nationally, Bush and Kerry were tied in the most recent Post survey, with each receiving 46 percent support.
Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said other polls of the overall population show Bush doing far better among Hispanics, including two putting his support around 40 percent. Those surveys included far fewer respondents than in the Post-Univision-TRPI poll. "We got 35 percent in 2000," he said. "If [the election] was held today, we'd get somewhere between 40 and 42 percent."
Paul Rivera, senior political adviser for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, agreed on the significance of how Latinos vote in November. "Our goal is to exceed the Clinton-Gore number from 1996, which was 72 percent," he said, adding that the campaign hopes not only for a record percentage but also a record turnout among Hispanics.
Each campaign has spent about $1 million on Spanish-language television ads this year. For Kerry, that represents more than Al Gore spent throughout his 2000 campaign and for Bush it is about half of his 2000 total.
Kerry officials unveiled a new Spanish-language ad yesterday called "Faith," in which the candidate promises an immigration plan during his first 100 days in office. The most recent Bush ad aimed at Latinos, called "Priorities," began airing about a week ago. It criticizes Kerry for missing major Senate votes.
Neither campaign, however, is close to its ultimate vote goals, the survey found. Fewer than half of all Latinos say Kerry is reaching out to them and their community -- and a similar proportion say the same about Bush.
Democrats currently have greater appeal to Hispanics, with half saying they believe Democrats have more concern for their community, compared with 14 percent who cited the Republicans. But on some key measures, Bush is more popular among Latinos than his party is, and a majority view him as likable.
In the poll, 36 percent of Latinos said they approved of the job Bush is doing as president, while 54 percent disapproved. On some specific areas of performance, Bush was judged even more harshly. Six in 10 Hispanic voters disapproved of the way he is dealing with the economy and the situation in Iraq, while somewhat fewer disapproved of the way he is handling immigration issues. They divided over Bush's performance on education.
"Bush is wrong on Iraq," said Maria Cerda, 42, of the Bronx, who is from the Dominican Republic and cleans offices for a living. "There are a lot of young people dying over there. Education and better jobs is what we need. Not war."
Cerda sees Bush as a "weak leader -- people are always telling him what to do." Her opinion of Kerry is only slightly better. "He doesn't seem that strong to me, either, but he's better than Bush."
The area in which Bush received majority support was on his handling of terrorism, on which 54 percent of Hispanics said he had been doing a good job. Six in 10 said they believed Bush was a "strong leader," a trait that has been one of the president's strengths nationally.
Yet even on the war on terrorism, these Latino voters said they preferred Kerry to Bush -- by a modest ratio of 43 percent to 35 percent. A similar proportion favored Kerry to Bush in dealing with Iraq. By larger margins, the Massachusetts senator was viewed as superior to Bush on the economy -- where Kerry had a 25 percentage-point advantage -- immigration (20 points) and education (24 points).
Kerry also was viewed as more caring and, by a smaller margin, better able to handle crises than Bush. On none of the key measures of presidential character or personality was Bush judged to be superior to his Democratic challenger, an advantage Kerry holds even though about one in four Latinos said they did not know enough about him to judge.
"I am with the Democrat Kerry," said Maria Medina, 44, a Mexican American who lives in Chicago and works as a kitchen manager in the Cook County jail. "The economy is not in good shape. I am disappointed in the way [Bush] is leading the country."
She said she knows little about Kerry. But she voted Democratic four years ago -- her first election as a U.S. citizen -- and is likely to do so again. "Democrats understand people with needs. Republicans are for people with no needs."
Fifty-three percent -- said Kerry understood the problems "of people like you," while 37 percent held a similar view of Bush.
A slight majority -- 53 percent -- said Kerry "can be trusted in a crisis"; 47 percent said they trusted Bush. Six in 10 did say Bush had a "likable" personality, but a slightly larger share (69 percent) said Kerry was likable, too.
Latino voters are far from a monolithic voting bloc. Cuban Americans have long stood out for their attachment to the GOP, and in this survey, three in four give Bush a positive job-approval rating, and a similar percentage say they plan to back him in the fall.
They also are twice as likely as Mexican Americans or Puerto Ricans to say the economy is improving, and four times as likely to base their voting decision on terrorism rather than domestic issues. By a large majority, they support the war in Iraq.
All this could make for another close race in Florida, where Cuban Americans voted overwhelmingly for Bush in 2000, prompting some community leaders to claim credit for electing Bush president. The survey suggests Cuban Americans in the Sunshine State once again could provide Bush a major boost, and the poll showed him leading Kerry by a wide margin among Hispanics there.
"I'll probably vote for Bush," said Ricardo Aguilar, 38, a Cuban American who owns a commercial photography studio in Orlando. While he has reservations about Bush, he views Kerry as a "flip-flopper." Said Aguilar, "He says, 'Life begins at conception, but I'm for abortion. I voted for the war, but I don't want to fund it.' Huh? He tells me he's going to make 5 million jobs, but doesn't tell me how."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.