The Magazine

Hispanic Panic

Back to square uno para el GOP.

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from the Miami area, puts it bluntly: "We have a very, very serious problem." He is referring to the GOP's lack of support among Hispanics, which could derail the party's future presidential hopes.

In a September 2007 Washington Post column, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson noted that "a substantial shift of Hispanic voters toward the Democrats" in five states--Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico--"could make the national political map unwinnable for Republicans." All five of those states went for George W. Bush in 2004, and all but Arizona went for Barack Obama in 2008. Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi of Bendixen & Associates, which specializes in Hispanic public opinion, says that "the Hispanic vote played a crucial role, if not the determinant role" in helping Obama carry Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.

The numbers in Florida were especially striking. According to the exit polls, Bush won Florida Hispanics by 12 percentage points (56-44) in 2004, while John McCain lost Florida Hispanics by 15 percentage points (57-42) in 2008. In other words, between 2004 and 2008, the Hispanic presidential vote in Florida swung by 27 percentage points.

What explains that? Among other things, a decline in the relative strength of the Cuban vote, which remains heavily Republican. An increasingly large share of Florida's Hispanic population is made up of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Colombians, -Venezuelans, Argentines, and other non-Cubans. Indeed, according to Bendixen & Associates, non-Cubans now account for a majority of Latino voters in the Sunshine State. (Just 20 years ago, says Amandi, Cubans represented around 90 percent of Florida's Hispanic voters.) It appears that Obama also did noticeably better among Florida Cubans than John Kerry did four years ago, thanks to the younger generation of Cuban Americans, though McCain still received a huge majority of the Cuban vote.

What about Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico? In each of these states, Latinos made up a significantly bigger portion of the electorate in 2008 than they did in 2004. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that the increase was 5 percentage points in Colorado, 5 percentage points in Nevada, and 9 percentage points in New Mexico. In 2008, Latinos accounted for 13 percent of the electorate in Colorado, 15 percent in Nevada, and 41 percent in New Mexico.

According to the exit polls, Obama ran 16 percentage points ahead of Kerry among Nevada Hispanics and 13 percentage points ahead of Kerry among New Mexico Hispanics. In Colorado, Obama actually ran 7 percentage points behind Kerry among Hispanics, but he still won 61 percent of the Latino vote and ran 8 percentage points ahead of Kerry among white voters.

Even in McCain's home state of Arizona, Obama won Hispanics by 15 percentage points (56-41). In Texas, Obama won Hispanics by 28 percentage points (63-35). James Gimpel, an immigration expert at the University of Maryland, predicts that Arizona and even Texas will soon become "blue" states thanks to their large and rapidly growing Hispanic populations. (In 2008, Hispanics were 16 percent of the electorate in Arizona and 20 percent of the electorate in Texas.)

Just a few years ago, it seemed as if Latinos might be opening up to the GOP. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the partisan affiliation gap among Latinos shrank from 33 percentage points in 1999 to 21 percentage points in 2006. Yet in late 2007, Pew reported that the gap had swelled to 34 percentage points.

What happened? Many blame the debate over comprehensive immigration reform, which produced fierce legislative showdowns in 2006 and 2007. "It was the tone of the debate," says Diaz-Balart. "The tone of some Republicans was offensive to the vast majority of Hispanics." He believes this "had a devastating effect" on the party's standing with Latino voters.

"The immigration debate was catastrophically divisive for Republicans," says a GOP Senate staffer (who is Hispanic). He fears that a replay of the 2006 and 2007 immigration spats would "fracture" the GOP and worsen its image among Hispanics.