An Old Idea, Discarded, Is Worth Second Look

<i> Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer</i>

Democratic leaders are still wondering what went wrong with their party’s 1988 presidential campaign, which saw Michael S. Dukakis blow a momentary lead in public-opinion polls and lose to George Bush. But one bright spot they should not lose sight of in their post-mortems is the resurgence of Democratic support in the Latino community.

The fact that Latino voters heavily supported Dukakis and other Democratic candidates last Nov. 8 was readily apparent on election night in exit polls conducted by several major news organizations, including The Times. These polls found that Bush got only 30% to 33% of the Latino vote nationwide as compared to 65% to 70% support for Dukakis. That reversed a trend of growing support for Republican presidential candidates among Latinos, a trend that reached a high point in 1984 when polls indicated that President Reagan may have won half the Latino vote.

Now an even more thorough breakdown of the Latino vote in 1988, done by the Southwest Voter Research Institute, a subsidiary of San Antonio’s Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, provides even more hope for Democrats looking to future elections in populous states such as Texas and California.

The institute polled 1,716 California Latinos after they voted last November, along with 2,654 Latinos in Texas and 1,162 in New Mexico. Their findings indicate that Latinos in the Southwest, mostly Mexican-Americans, supported the Democratic ticket even more strongly than Latinos nationwide, 83% voting for Dukakis in Texas and 74% voting for him in California. In California’s vote for U.S. senator, more than two-thirds of the state’s Latino voters cast ballots for Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy against the incumbent Republican, Pete Wilson.


Two possible explanations for the resurgence of Latino Democratic support are found in this study’s dry numbers.

One is that Reagan’s Latino support in 1984 was personal rather than ideological. The exit poll found that 4 of every 10 Latinos who voted for Reagan in ’84 voted for Dukakis in ’88. The return of these “Reagan Democrats” to the fold was more dramatic in Texas, where 6 of every 10 Latinos who voted for Reagan in the last election supported Dukakis. But this phenomenon had been expected by most political observers.

The second possible explanation is the more intriguing--and challenging--to Democratic party planners. The California exit poll found that almost one-fourth of the Latinos who voted for Dukakis in 1988, or 23% to be precise, did not vote at all in 1984.

I suspect that this significant portion of the Latino electorate includes two kinds of people: young persons, who had not been old enough to vote before last November, and the so-called “indifferent” voters, who do not regularly vote. And it’s not too unreasonable to suggest that one reason so many of them cast ballots last November is because the Southwest Voter Project and other Latino community groups, like the United Neighborhoods Organization of East Los Angeles, put so much time and energy into voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns.

That kind of grass-roots effort is considered outdated by some modern political strategists. Certainly the Harvard brain trust that maneuvered Dukakis down the road to defeat did not seem to care much for it, preferring to put its campaign money into esoteric TV commercials that only a relative handful of voters even understood. But grass-roots appeals do work with some voters, Latinos among them.

And for all the talk about the emergence of a Latino middle-class, and even an upper-class Latino “elite” that moves comfortably among the movers and shakers in cities like Los Angeles and Houston, the majority of Latinos in the Southwest are still very young. And we are still largely a working-class people.

And while Latinos can be quite conservative on social issues like abortion and the death penalty, a fact borne out by these same 1988 exit polls, they are liberal on issues like government spending on education. There is fodder here for the Democrats, if they are willing to put some effort into cultivating it.

That means getting out of Washington more often, and not just to visit Harvard Yard but to East Los Angeles. And it means reaching beyond the moneyed salons of Malibu and Manhattan to San Antonio’s West Side, to hear the concerns of a different kind of Democratic electorate.

The Dukakis campaign collapsed for many reasons. But one of its more obvious failures was trying to out-spend the Republicans--raising incredibly large amounts of money and using it to try and create mass-media images that would presumably appeal to the widest number of voters. They wound up homogenizing their candidate into a nonentity with no obvious ethnic or working-class appeal.

Maybe putting all that money into grass-roots efforts designed to bring out Latinos and other ethnic or class-conscious voters won’t guarantee victory in the 1992 presidential race for the Democrats. But can the outcome be much worse than it was in 1988?