As the Great Recall of 2003 recedes into political memory, so begins the search for “lessons.”
Political operatives, like yours truly, spent the post-election either explaining why their strategies worked, or, if you’re Terry McAuliffe, why Arnold’s victory is actually an indictment of…”Bush’s economic plans.”
Clearly, political advice comes in all shapes and sizes, with everyone spinning the results to favor their own slice of the political pie. My slice is thinner than most, but I like to think it’s one of the richest. (No, this will not be another food column. That’s next week.)
Latino voters, the most-watched electoral segment of the recall–and every other election of late–constitute the focus of my professional political activities. Following is my own take on how this critical voting bloc influenced the results of the recall election and how those results should inform the parties’ future efforts to attract Hispanic voters.
First the facts: According to an exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research, and used by all five major networks, 54% of California’s Hispanic voters opposed the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. On the replacement ballot, 52% of Hispanics chose Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante while 31% chose Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Now let’s add a little context: California’s Latino population skews heavily Democrat. Their support for Davis should have been strong, but 46% of Latinos decided that they were better off with someone else in the Governor’s office. The Dallas Morning News’ Ruben Navarrette suggested that Latinos were tired of “someone who knew only two ways to interact with them–ignore or pander.”
California radio personality Martha Montelongo commented, “Gray undermined our community’s integrity when he signed the bill for illegals to obtain drivers licenses after having vetoed it twice before.”
Democrats should be concerned that Latinos, a group they’ve long considered a solid part of their base, were sharply split on recalling the party’s governor, even after a shameless display of pandering.
Latino lever-pulling on the replacement ballot also offered surprises. Bustamante barely won the majority of the Hispanic vote. Add the Latino vote percentages that Arnold and Bill McClintock received and you see Republicans earning an impressive 40% of California’s Hispanic vote.
So what lessons, if any, should incumbent and aspiring politicians, as well as their advisors, glean from this episode?
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) offered some pretty good advice to his own party. Referring to Hispanic voter’s “independent streak,” the Chairman of the 2004 Democrat Convention warned his party against taking Hispanic voters for granted and urged them to “move beyond issues like immigration and [instead] stress economic concerns, including job creation and entrepreneurship.”
It sounds like Richardson actually knows something about Hispanic voters, who make up 43% of the state he governs. The question is whether his party will pay him any heed. It’s not very encouraging when a party’s most visible Hispanic is telling his party that they’re blowing it.
As for Bustamante, he should consider his relatively weak Latino support as an unmistakable signal that he has NO standing in the community and that his lackluster campaign and unexciting personality are exactly what does NOT work in Latino politics.
But Bustamante shouldn’t be surprised that his last name and pencil-thin mustache weren’t enough to win the support of his gente. After all, this is the second recall election where he’s gone down in flames for opposing his community’s wishes. Last year he was on the wrong side when Santa Ana residents recalled school board member and political activist Nativo Lopez for refusing to comply with the state law eliminating bilingual education.
At that time I wrote about how even some Latino parents instinctively backed one of their “leaders,” assuming he had their best interests in mind. Bustamante flew down to Santa Ana and went to bat for Lopez. Fortunately for the Latino children of that city, Latino parents came around and Lopez was ultimately recalled. This resulted in Hispanic students learning English and their parents learning that “community leaders” don’t always lead in the right direction.
Beyond the politics, though, Bustamante simply didn’t run the high-energy, personal campaign that is so critical to garnering Latino support. As corporate marketers learned long ago, you can’t “mail it in” with Latinos; you have to be on the ground with intensity. Bustamante’s political style is only slightly more interesting than Gray Davis’, which is suicidal for candidates targeting this voter group.
If Democrats thought Bustamante was the ideal candidate for netting Latino votes, they need to update their strategy to the 21st century, toss the “civil rights” language and learn a little something about the community.
Republicans, on the other hand, appear to be in better shape with Latino voters than they expected…but that’s not saying much. They’re just as surprised by their bump in Latino support as the Democrats are by its erosion. Unfortunately, this has already led to unrealistic expectations about follow-up victories with Latino voters.
To that I say, “Settle down, Francis.”
Republicans have a long way to go with Hispanic voters and the journey begins with a frank assessment of how Arnold did what he did.
To begin with, Arnold is an immigrant, which immediately gives him Latino street cred that the typical Republican candidate simply doesn’t have. Second, Arnold had priceless positive name recognition that is unobtainable for just about anyone but him; so that’s not a real lesson either. Finally, recall voters skewed Republican, a phenomenon that, while certainly enjoyable, isn’t likely to occur in districts where Latinos are a decisive factor.
Some Republicans are arguing that Arnold’s support for Proposition 187 and his alliance with ex-Gov. Pete Wilson didn’t hurt him with Latino voters. It’s much more likely that his support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrant students and his comment that “I want to help undocumented immigrants” neutralized the negative impact of supporting Prop. 187.
Let’s not forget that Arnold’s campaign only dealt with Prop. 187 after ex-Gov. Pete Wilson mentioned it on the Sunday talk shows, and the campaign spent the next 24 hours scrambling to get out a coherent message. This hardly signaled that immigration reform was intended to be a central theme of the Schwarzenegger campaign.
Furthermore, the restrictionist element in the Republican Party should consider it a slap in the face that Arnold said “undocumented” instead of “illegal” immigrants. To say that Arnold went by the FAIR playbook is pure fantasy. His Latino support merely proves that Republicans don’t need to play dead on the immigration issue.
But that’s always been the case.
If Democrats and Latino “community activists” continue to demagogue this issue, Republicans will hemorrhage critical Latino support. Once the issue begins to be addressed and a little reason seeps into the equation, Latinos will support common sense immigration reform.
The behavior of California’s Latino voters didn’t go according to the plans of Democrat strategists and their party’s decrepit outreach techniques, but neither did it validate the dreams of Republican restrictionists, who believe Arnold’s victory should encourage Republican candidates to rally around Tom Tancredo.
Republican Rep. Jeff Flake has wisely noted that the results improve the chances of “serious and comprehensive immigration reform.”
Republicans won an important victory with California’s Latino voters, they shouldn’t squander it by drawing the wrong conclusions.
Raul Damas is director of operations at Opiniones Latinas, a Hispanic-focused polling firm.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | James Velasquez
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond