Where do Republicans Go From Here?: Latino Outreach in a New Era of Politics

By Stephen A. Nuño, Northern Arizona University

The greatest cliché in politics today as it relates to Latinos is the notion that Latinos are Republicans; they just don’t know it yet.  Perhaps this was once true, but over the last few weeks and with this weeks findings from Latino Decisions’ most recent poll, the notion that Latinos can be Republican or that religiosity can be used as a bridge to recruit Latinos without significant changes in how the GOP approaches Latino voters seems to have been effectively dismantled.

In his American Conservative article, “Republicans and the End of White America”, Ron Unz states that the Republican Party can only be characterized as the “white Party” and past attempts by the GOP to restrict immigration into the country had more to do with mobilizing white angst against the growing number of migrants than it did about sound social and economic policy. This was a similar strategy used by the Republican Party in the South as power structures that were once dominated by whites gave way to Black political inclusion. This was a pragmatic attempt to make short-term gains at the expense of long-term benefits. Unz writes that “while the politics of polarization might be demonized in liberal intellectual circles, it served to elect vast numbers of Republicans to high and low office alike”. This is a remarkable statement. Even if many well-intentioned whites were lured by the rhetoric of egalitarianism, which provided a thin veil of liberalism to cover the obviously racially motivated results, it validates what Latinos have known all along.

Perhaps this is why the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and other organizations, started by anti-immigrant activist John Tanton, who have long maintained at least some rhetorical space between legal and illegal immigrants are no longer committed to that distinction. FAIR and other anti-immigrant groups, which Republican representatives have long used as a legitimate source for research on immigration, has been running television ads arguing that legal immigration now must be stopped. Mark Krikorian, a descendant of Armenian immigrants, argues that both legal and illegal immigration needs to be curtailed in his book, The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal.

This has created a continuous rift between the GOP and Latinos. It was thirty years ago that Ronald Reagan ran a concerted effort to recruit Latinos into the GOP, but that was dismantled throughout the anti-immigrant spasm orchestrated by Pete Wilson in the 1990’s.  President George W. Bush and Karl Rove have been wholly committed to integrating Hispanics into the GOP but the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 and the ensuing war on terror that evoked a nativist response effectively shut that possibility out.

Gary Segura of Latino Decisions has convincingly illustrated that Latinos are decidedly not Republicans, despite the cliché.  Segura’s argument is also consistent with past research by Cortina and de la Garza in which they conclude that Latinos are not Republican and know it. The question now, however, is where do the Republicans go from here?  Unfortunately, there is no easy answer.  It took three decades to create this division and it will take as long to repair it.

Aside from the obvious implications Republican recruitment has for representative democracy, research does show that the gap between the GOP and Latinos can be bridged.  However, it will take a concerted effort to do so.  Whether or not the GOP wants to commit to representing the fastest growing segment of the population by appealing to their interests is still an open question, but the research has shown that Latinos will respond if Republicans reach out to them.

In my academic article, “Latino Mobilization and Vote Choice in the 2000 Presidential Election”, I show that Hispanic recruits can have a positive impact on influencing the vote of other Latinos in favor of the GOP. In other research with Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, we have seen a similar impact on how Latinos view partisan policies. In addition to the impact that Latino recruits have on other Latinos, Matt Barreto has shown that Latino candidates can have a similarly positive impact on Latino participation. In short, Republican efforts to bring Latinos into the fold could have the effect of bringing Latino voters into the Party.

With this in mind, Latino Decisions’ latest poll asks Hispanics if Marco Rubio, a Cuban American Republican Senator from Florida, was nominated by the GOP for Vice-President, would it have any effect on their likelihood of voting Republican.  While this had little impact on Democrats, it did have a larger impact on Independents, with 26% saying they are more likely to vote Republican.  About 30% of Hispanics between the age of 18 and 35 said so as well, perhaps because they are still too young or not yet politically conscious of the harsh rhetoric coming from the GOP over the last 30 years.

The areas for advancement have been so deteriorated by GOP rhetoric that it will take a concerted effort to make inroads, which would not only be beneficial in democratic terms, but the research has shown over and again that the country as a whole would like some sensible approach to immigration.  A more sensible approach would also seem more compelling since it has a positive impact on the electability of the candidate as well.  It would be worth the effort to finally take this issue off the table and move forward onto other issues, such as education, small business development, and fixing the economy, all issues that rank high among Latinos and non-Latinos alike.

It’s still difficult to tell how Latinos would react if the GOP systematically reached out to them. While the research shows its possible, Latinos think the GOP seems uninterested in changing old habits.  In the same survey by Latino Decisions, Hispanics were asked if the Republican Party is doing a good job of reaching out to Latinos. As reflected in the figure below, not even half of Latino Republicans say the GOP is doing a good job, and many more Latino Republicans think the GOP is either being hostile or doesn’t care too much about Latinos. Yet, less than half of Independents think the Democrats are doing a good job, as well. These are opportunities the GOP can hardly afford to squander.

While it’s easy to be melancholic about the future of the GOP’s relationship with Hispanics, candidates such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have integrated Latinos into their campaigns and their administration.  Gingrich has long employed Sylvia Garcia, his outreach director, to run his Hispanic website and Rick Perry appointed another Hispanic to an important commission in Texas earlier this year.  It’s clear that efforts to reach out to Hispanics reap positive results, as the Democrats have shown, and maybe that’s why Newt Gingrich recently hired Marco Rubio’s campaign chief to be his Florida Director. Rather than collecting endorsements, Newt seems to be putting his money where his mouth is. Perhaps its time the GOP did as well.

Stephen A. Nuño, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University and a regular contributor to Latino Decisions. His research focuses on partisan outreach to Hispanic voters.

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