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Note to Republicans: The Problem Isn’t Just Immigration

Note to Republicans: The Problem Isn’t Just Immigration

Latinos’ disdain for the party’s brand goes far beyond the party’s stance on immigration.

Grecia Lima, left, cheers as Maria Durand, second from left, brings her early voting ballot and joins members of Promise Arizona in Action in announcing their voter registration drive with Latino youth. Latinos overwhelmingly voted for President Obama's re-election last week. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
Grecia Lima, left, cheers as Maria Durand, second from left, brings her early voting ballot and joins members of Promise Arizona in Action in announcing their voter registration drive with Latino youth. Latinos overwhelmingly voted for President Obama's re-election last week. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)

In the wake of last Tuesday’s presidential election, the entire political establishment is analyzing and dissecting the sleeping giant that awoke: the more than 12 million Latinos who voted and helped propel President Barack Obama to victory in key battleground states. Republicans are fretting—and rightly so—over their dismal support among this demographic but continue to show a lack of understanding, arguing that the reason Latinos rejected their agenda was a communication problem rather than a substance problem.

They are wrong. If Republicans want the support of the Latino community, they need to fundamentally change their party’s policy and evolve on a range of issues.

The leaders of the party and many of its rank-and-file members are right to be worried. President Obama garnered 71 percent of the Latino vote nationwide, compared to Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 27 percent. In fact, Gov. Romney’s showing among Latinos in 2012 was the worst for a Republican candidate since former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole won just 21 percent of the Latino vote in 1996. When President George W. Bush won in 2000, he received 44 percent of the Latino vote; in 2008 Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) received only 31 percent of the Latino vote. This is not a reassuring record to have with the nation’s fastest-growing demography, which is projected to double in size by 2050.

To be sure, the immigration platform that Gov. Romney embraced does explain in large measure the profound dislike Latinos have for the Republican brand. Various polls show that the majority of Latinos—more than 77 percent—support a path to legalization for our nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. Even more Latinos—91 percent—support the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide a pathway to permanent legal status for approximately 2.1 million undocumented youth currently living in the United States.

Gov. Romney’s stance of “self-deportation,” however, is the complete opposite. And no wonder—self deportation means making one’s life so miserable here that one would choose to leave the country rather than stay.

Some Republicans argue that they simply need to change their tone and explain their policies better. But the concept of making someone’s life so unbearable that he or she will be forced to leave cannot be massaged and sugarcoated. After all, 90 percent of Latinos in the United States have an immigrant parent or grandparent, 60 percent of Latino voters know an undocumented immigrant, and one-quarter know someone who is either facing deportation or has been deported. Immigration is a very personal issue to the Latino community, and the “self-deportation” alternative Gov. Romney put forth this year offended many Latinos. It simply is a nonstarter.

But the problem goes far beyond immigration. Republicans would do well to read the various polls to understand the dissonance between their ideas and Latinos’ values and aspirations. Polls on various issues show that by and large, Latinos agree with the values President Obama embraces and his policy agenda on the issues that matter most to them: the economy, jobs, education, health care, and immigration.

Take the election-eve poll conducted by Impremedia/LatinoDecisions, for example, which found that:

  • 66 percent of Latino voters believe the federal government should ensure that all people have access to health insurance.
  • 61 percent of Latino voters believe that the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, should stand as law.
  • 42 percent of Latino voters support a “combination of higher taxes and spending cuts” to reduce the deficit, while 35 percent said that we needed to raise taxes on the wealthy.

A national Fox News Latino poll earlier this year also showed that 62 percent of Latinos approve of the overall job President Obama did with health care, including the Affordable Care Act. On jobs and the economy, a Univision poll found that 55 percent of Latinos said the government should invest resources in federal projects to stimulate the economy. Again, these viewpoints are more in line with President Obama’s approach on the economy and tax fairness than those of Gov. Romney.

As an overall brand, Republicans don’t fare much better. According to the ImpreMedia/LatinoDecisions poll, 61 percent of Latinos say they trust the Democrats and President Obama to make the right decisions and improve the country’s economic conditions, while the same percentage said that the Democratic Party has shown more concern toward them as a community. Latino registered voters also express a strong affinity for the Democratic Party in their political party identification. According to a poll by the Pew Forum, 70 percent of Latino registered voters identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while only 22 percent identify with or lean toward the Republican Party.

There is also yet another significant problem for Republicans within the Latino community: women. Latinas represent 6 percent of the electorate—slightly higher than Latino men—and supported President Obama by a margin of more than 10 points compared to their male counterparts: 76 percent versus 65 percent. According to LatinoDecisions polling, 78 percent of Latinas trust Democrats to make better decisions for women than Republicans. And only 20 percent of Latinas have a favorable view of Republicans in Congress.

Now let’s take a look at social issues, which Republicans argue is their saving grace when it comes to this group. While it is true that Latinos historically poll as more socially conservative, recent polling suggests that the longer they live in the United States, the more tolerant they become on social issues such as abortion and gay and transgender rights, including marriage equality.

A recent survey by Lake Research Partners shows that 74 percent of Latino registered voters agree that a woman has a right to make her own personal private decisions about abortion without politicians interfering. The same poll showed that 73 percent of Latino registered voters agree that we should not judge someone who feels they are not ready to be a parent.

On marriage equality the trend is the same: The Pew Hispanic Center last month released a poll confirming that a majority of Latinos support marriage equality for same-sex couples. Fifty-two percent of Latinos favor affording same-sex couples the rights and responsibilities of marriage, with 34 percent opposed. Six years ago Latino attitudes on the issue were virtually flipped.

Moreover, most religious Latinos support the president. A Pew Forum poll in October found that three-quarters of Latino Catholics supported President Obama’s re-election. Evangelical Latinos, who account for 15 percent of all Latino registered voters, tend to be more conservative, yet half of them still preferred President Obama to Gov. Romney in the presidential race.

Young Latinos also helped fuel the youth vote for President Obama. The president won every age group under 40, including young Latino voters (ages 18 to 29), who backed him by a margin of 74 percent to 23 percent. Among Hispanic college graduates, 62 percent voted for President Obama, while 35 percent supported Gov. Romney.

There are two ways that Republicans can show that they want to do right by this community and begin improving their record in the short term. One is by supporting a path to legalization for our nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. Some party leaders and press pundits on the right are already seeing the light, as is the case with talk-show host Sean Hannity, who shocked the political establishment last week by announcing that he had “evolved” on immigration, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal categorizing his party’s position on immigration and other issues as “stupid.” The Republican Party needs more of this self-evaluation and evolution if they want to be competitive with this demographic.

But a more immediate and tangible way to show Latinos that Republicans care about them is to vote the right way on the upcoming fiscal cliff. The package of expiring tax cuts and automatic spending cuts includes deep cuts to social programs on education and training such as special education programs, work study, and Title I programs that provide federal funding to low-income school districts, as well as entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which are often a lifeline for Latinos.

Polls are a snapshot of time, and while there is no guarantee that the Democratic Party inclinations of Latinos are a long-term trend, Republicans undoubtedly have their work cut out for them.  Without fundamentally changing their policies and actually being for something rather than against everything, it is hard to tell how they will appeal to the growing Latino community.  The sleeping giant is wide awake—when the Latino community looks at the Republican agenda today, they don’t like what they see.

Vanessa Cárdenas is the Director of Progress 2050 Action at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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Vanessa Cárdenas

Vice President, Progress 2050