On his recent victory tour of Washington, Antonio Villaraigosa admonished a group of Democratic activists that their party needed to concentrate more on outreach and diversity. But if Los Angeles’ first Hispanic American mayor in 133 years really wants to show his party how it’s done, he could easily point to the other side of the nation’s partisan divide, where Republicans have made unprecedented inroads toward building a solid base among Latino voters.
While Cuban Americans have historically voted Republican by wide margins, primarily because of the GOP’s strong anti-communist credentials, Americans of Mexican, Central American and South American descent have been equally ardent supporters of the Democratic Party and its candidates. But that Democratic advantage is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Over the last three presidential election cycles, Latino American support for Democrats has steadily declined, from the 72% that voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 to the 53% that John Kerry received last year.
Although these percentages are based on exit polling and the precise numbers are still being debated, the overall trend is beyond dispute, and a party that loses nearly a quarter of a core constituency in less than a decade is a party with cause for distress. And when that constituency represents the country’s fastest-growing demographic -- the U.S. Latino population has doubled since 1980 and is expected to increase even more rapidly over the next 20 years -- Villaraigosa has every right to be concerned.
Various theories try to explain this shift in voting behavior. Like most ethnic groups that immigrated to America during the 19th and 20th centuries, Latinos became more conservative economically as they achieved greater prosperity. Also, Latinos serve in the armed forces at much higher levels than any other ethnic or racial group, leading to higher support of the Republican agenda for national security and military preparedness. Finally, there are rising numbers of Latino voters, both Catholic and evangelical, who relate to the GOP’s platform on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
In years past, the debate over illegal immigration allowed some Democrats to try to paint Republicans as racists and xenophobes. But President Bush has outlined a plan that would combine stiffer penalties for illegal immigrants with provisions for a legal guest-worker program that provides a path to citizenship. His former presidential primary rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has introduced separate legislation that accomplishes many of the same goals.
Although most Americans support a crackdown on lawbreakers coming to the U.S., support for legal immigration remains high. By combining these two sentiments into one plan, Bush and McCain have taken the first steps toward making Democratic charges of immigrant-bashing a much harder sell to Latino voters.
The other brewing debate worth considering involves Supreme Court nominations. With Chief Justice William Rehnquist almost certain to retire at the end of the court’s current session, and at least three other justices expected to follow his lead before 2008, Bush has an opportunity to dramatically reshape the court. Reports are that he is considering several Latino Americans as nominees, including Alberto Gonzalez, who was confirmed earlier this year as the first Latino U.S. attorney general in history.
In the early part of the 20th century, Democratic presidents appointed the court’s first Jewish justices, Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, which helped lock in Jewish support for Democratic candidates that continues today. Jewish voters support Democratic candidates for many reasons, but the appointments of Brandeis and Frankfurter sent a strong message that the Democratic Party was committed to Jewish Americans.
Coupled with a policy agenda that has already made substantial gains with Latino voters, a Bush appointment of Gonzalez would continue and accelerate the movement of Latinos toward the GOP.
As Villaraigosa would almost certainly agree, that doesn’t bode well for Democrats trying to figure out how to fix their broken party.
Dan Schnur, a Republican political consultant, teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. He served as communications director for McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.