A few conservative talking heads are pointing to the slight increase in Latino support for Republicans in the 2010 election as evidence of growing support for the GOP among Latinos. Careful scrutiny, however, reveals that this assertion is nothing more than spin. Republican support among Latinos is actually at one of its lowest points due to the fact that Republicans have done a good job at alienating the Latino community in the last few years.
The GOP is trying to salvage its reputation and brand among Latinos. Just last week Newt Gingrich hosted an outreach event bringing together conservative leaders to discuss their agenda. But these efforts are not enough to placate years of beating down on immigrants, including efforts to criminalize the immigrant community; denying birthright citizenship to children born in the United States; and promoting Arizona-like policies across the nation. And with unified opposition to the upcoming DREAM Act vote, Republicans continue to marginalize the Latino community.
Conservative Republicans argue that they made inroads among Latinos in the 2010 election because the GOP got 38 percent of the Latino vote. This represents an increase of 9 percent compared to the 29 percent of support among Latinos in 2008.
There are two points to make in regard to this increase. First, national polling numbers likely overstated Latino support for Republicans by a significant amount because pollsters rely on small sample sizes of Latino voters, do not take into consideration the fact that the Latino electorate is concentrated in more urban locations, and do not accurately capture Spanish-dominant Latino voters. A more accurate analysis, therefore, needs to be made to better assess voting trends, particularly among those who are Spanish dominant. But even if we accept the poll numbers cited by Republicans, the claims of a rosy future between them and Latinos are fundamentally wrong.
Second, while it’s true that there was a slight increase in support for the GOP, this is not surprising nor a trend because in every midterm election the party in power usually losses votes. The 8 percentage-point decline in Latino support for Democrats is identical to the 8 percentage-point decline in non-Hispanic support for Democrats between 2008 and 2010. In other words, Latino support for Democrats declined in line with the rest of the electorate.
Conservatives try to further their argument by comparing the 2010 election to the 2006 election when Republicans had 30 percent of support among Latinos. They conclude that there is a 17 percent increase in total Latino support by adding the 8 percent increase from 2006 to 2010 and the 9 percent increase from 2008 to 2010. They make this claim, however, while ignoring the well-known fact that in 2006 Republicans lost 10 percentage points among Latinos after the high-water mark of 40 percent support in 2004.
They also point to a few races where Republicans won with Latino support—mainly Gov. Rick Perry in Texas, Sen. John McCain in Arizona, and Marco Rubio in Florida. But these states have a traditionally Republican bent, so it is no surprise that Republicans are winning there. More importantly, the Republicans that ran and won those races value the Latino vote. Perry, McCain, and Rubio went to great lengths to avoid the extreme rhetoric on Latinos, immigrants, and immigration that often comes from the GOP’s highest levels.
Gov. Perry was named the number one Hispanic-friendly politician of the 2010 election by Somos Republicans, an Arizona-based organization. And Sen. McCain has a long, and for the most part positive, relationship with Latinos in his state. At one point he enjoyed a whooping 70 percent of the Latino vote—a rarity among Republicans. True, he has completely flipped his position on immigration reform from being one of its champions to turning his back on his own proposals. But some believe (or hope) that he may still support reform should it come to a vote.
Rubio’s race deserves a more nuanced analysis. First of all, he is emblematic of a new breed of Latino elected officials who have chosen not to support immigration reform and promote an enforcement-only posture. This is significant because it shows the GOP is supporting and promoting Latinos who are adopting a stance on immigration that is out of step with most Latinos and the rest of the electorate.
Senator-elect Marco Rubio is, in fact, one of the most extreme candidates when it comes to immigration and other progressive issues. He supports Arizona’s SB 1070, is against the DREAM Act and immigration reform, and doesn’t even think that the undocumented should be counted in the census. (He even opposed Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination.) Yet his record on immigration was unchallenged during the election.
Rubio was successful in downplaying his extremist position when speaking to the Latino community because he emphasized his personal story and his parents’ pursuit of the American Dream and often avoided the details of what he would actually do to address the 12 million undocumented. He instead often declared his support for legal immigration—but aren’t we all in favor of that?
He managed to win 45 percent of the overall Latino vote in Florida. But this number is less impressive when you compare it to the other Republican Latinos in Florida. Mel Martinez, the Cuban American Republican senator whom Rubio will replace, won 60 percent of the Latino vote in 2004. And in the 2008 election Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) received 64 percent of the Latino vote while Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) won 67 percent. What this means is that Rubio is walking a very tight rope when it comes to maintaining support among Latinos even in traditionally Republican Florida.
The lesson that the GOP should learn from 2010 is that in a historically bad year for Democrats with historically bad economic circumstances, Democrats still got 22 percent more Latino support with 60 percent of the their vote. The GOP should also note that they did worse among Latinos in 2010 than they did in 2004 even though 2004 and 2010 were both good years for the party.
Instead of spinning the facts, conservatives should heed the call of those who want to reposition their party in the Latino community. By all accounts they have their work cut out for them. The 112th Congress brings a Republican majority with notorious antireform leaders such as Steve King (R-IO) and Lamar Smith (R-TX), and an agenda that is clearly out of step with what matters to Latinos.
Vanessa Cárdenas is the Director of Progress 2050, a project of the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., which seeks to build a progressive agenda that is more inclusive of the rich racial and ethnic makeup of our nation.