How Not to Court Latino Voters

The ways immigration was used in key election campaigns this year offer lessons for dealing with the issue and winning over Latinos, writes Gebe Martinez.

Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, above, who ran in New York's 23rd District for Congress, started out with a well-reasoned message about immigration on his website but allowed his talking points to be overtaken by hardline radio advertising. (AP/Seth Wenig)
Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, above, who ran in New York's 23rd District for Congress, started out with a well-reasoned message about immigration on his website but allowed his talking points to be overtaken by hardline radio advertising. (AP/Seth Wenig)

If you dig below the surface of Tuesday’s election results you’ll find that, on immigration, politicians resorted to the politics of anger and fear—a short-sighted strategy that produced mixed results and will be harmful in the long run for both national parties.

The results left Republicans looking like angry right-wing extremists and Democrats appearing afraid and uncertain of how to deal with the issue. It is a political habit for both sides that has become hard to break.

Whether it is in a tight election contest or a tough policy debate, the most conservative side usually resorts to talking tough on immigration, a complex issue that can easily be distorted to create fear. And the impulse to take a “hard right” at the last minute occurred in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, in which Republican Chris Christie defeated incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine after letting a hardliner stump for him.

The response from moderates in conservative-leaning areas is usually to recoil rather than lean into the immigration issue for the sake of surviving the next election campaign, as we saw in statewide races in Virginia. Democrats there seemed to lose their footing and slide off the path to victory that was charted by President Barack Obama last year and outgoing Democratic Governor Tim Kaine.

The special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district showed the damage that the far-right wing can do to the Republican Party’s national message, especially if it wants to eventually reach out to the Latino vote, the fastest-growing electorate in the nation.

Lost in this limited round of races is the fact that while voters may be frustrated and even angry with the federal government trying to take on too much, voters blame it for the failing immigration system. They would rather see it fixed than have the issue demagogued.

The 2008 national election cycle also showed that the anti-immigrant message is not a winning one at the polls and is a major turnoff among Latino voters.

The various ways immigration was used by campaigns in key election contests in three states offer insight into dealing with the issue and also courting the ever-growing votes of Hispanics, who feel the sting of harsh anti-immigration rhetoric.

New York’s 23rd District

The race to fill the House vacancy in an upstate New York district along the Canadian border was billed as a fight for the “soul” of the National Republican Party. In this district, the debate over “illegal” drugs crossing the border could easily be about U.S. citizens wanting to purchase lower-priced prescription drugs in Canada. Latinos make up only 2 percent of the population.

Though not many Latinos live there, conservative hardliners against legal and illegal immigration such as the Minuteman PAC rushed to the district to rally for Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. The combination of antigovernment, anti-immigrant, antigay marriage anger by conservatives forced Republican centrist Diedre “Dede” Scozzafava to pull out of the race just three days before the election.

Republicans were stunned when Hoffman was defeated by Democrat Bill Owen, losing the House seat held by the GOP for more than a century.

Immigration was not an overriding concern for the district’s previous congressman, Republican John McHugh, who officially ended his 16-year House career in September after being picked by President Obama to serve as Secretary of the Army. (Obama took 52 percent of the district’s vote against John McCain last year.)

Hoffman started out with a well-reasoned message about immigration on his website that is opposite the “enforcement only” approach of immigration restrictionists like the Minuteman PAC. But he allowed his talking points to be overtaken by radio advertising by the Minuteman, who back candidates who agree that “America should welcome legal immigration but reject colonization and Balkanization.”

The Minutemen PAC said Hoffman had “pledged quick action against amnesty and government handouts to illegal aliens.”

The Republican Party’s message from this district is that social conservatives such as immigration hardliners control the party and moderates need not apply. That is no way to court the Latino vote.

New Jersey

The gubernatorial election in New Jersey was the only high-profile race where the major candidates began the race talking about seeking practical solutions on immigration law enforcement while aggressively competing for the votes of Hispanics, who make up 16.3 percent of the state’s population.

Both Republican candidate Chris Christie and Democrat incumbent governor Jon Corzine expressed deep reservations about the federal government’s “287g” program that contracts with local police agencies to enforce immigration laws, an initiative that has been highly criticized by immigrants’ advocates for its potential for abuse.

On another issue, Corzine said he favored letting illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges, while Christie was opposed, making an economic argument that appealed to voters in a state suffering a bad economy.

But in the final weekend before the election, Christie got help from Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), known for yelling to the president, “You lie!” as Obama told Congress in a nationally televised address that his health care plan would not apply to illegal immigrants. Wilson stumped for Christie in New Jersey in the final days of the race.

Christie, after starting his campaign with a solid appeal to Latinos, could not resist the temptation to turn to an icon of immigration restrictionists as the race tightened. But he won Tuesday’s election and his early appeal to Latinos may have been a considerable factor.

Latinos made up 9 percent of the vote in the state, just as they did in the 2008 presidential election year. Christie got only 32 percent of the Latino vote, but it was 11 points higher than what Republican presidential nominee John McCain won in New Jersey last year.

The results beg the question: Would Christie’s totals among Latinos have been even higher if he had projected an even more positive pitch to them and resisted the temptation to bring a conservative voice into his campaign at the last minute?


Hispanics now make up 6.8 percent of the population in Virginia, yet voter outreach to this group, as well as African Americans and younger voters, was barely visible. This strategy proved disastrous for defeated Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds.

In the 2008 election, Latinos made up 5 percent of Virginia’s total vote and Obama took two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, similar to his national margin of support among Latinos. On Tuesday, the Latino turnout was a dismal 3 percent according to news media exit polls.

Deeds lost by 18 points and the rest of the state Democratic Party ticket suffered, squandering the seven-point margin of victory Obama took in Virginia last year against John McCain.

Republican Governor-elect Robert F. McDonnell smartly focused on transportation and tax issues and avoided the social issues while his party mate, Attorney General-elect Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, carried the flag for the party’s conservatives. Cuccinelli’s immigration restrictionist record includes calling on Congress to amend the Constitution to deny citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants who were born in the United States.

Though Republicans won big on Tuesday, they have yet to be convinced that their national message must include Latinos—and moderates, for that matter—or that this exclusive message will not make their wins short term and their tone too harsh.

Democrats need to show voters who want a stronger immigration system that they can govern, and that they can enact real reforms that will boost the economy, restore the rule of law, and protect basic rights for all workers.

Movement from both sides will be good for the nation.

Gebe Martinez is a Senior Writer and Policy Analyst at American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.