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Latino voters in California still reluctant to embrace GOP candidates, poll shows

Latino voters, who have helped to propel California’s leftward political swing over recent years, remain reluctant to embrace Republican candidates as the November general election nears, a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll shows.

Registered voters who identified themselves as Latino backed Democrat Jerry Brown by a 19-point margin over Republican Meg Whitman in the race for governor, despite Whitman’s multiple appeals to Latino voters during the general election campaign. Registered voters who identified themselves as white gave Brown a slim 2-point margin.

In the race for U.S. Senate, incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer held a 38-point lead over Republican Carly Fiorina among registered Latino voters, five times the lead she held among white voters.

Latino views are keenly watched by political candidates and campaigns because of the state’s demographic march. A 2009 study by the Field Poll found that white voters had declined from 83% to 65% of the electorate in the previous three decades. At the same time, the percentage of Latino voters had almost tripled, to 21%.

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To allow a more precise look at this key voter group, the new poll, sponsored by The Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, supplemented its sample of registered California voters by interviewing 400 Latino registered voters in either English or Spanish. To avoid changing the overall results, their numbers were adjusted in the poll to match expected voter turnout.??

In both the races for governor and for U.S. Senate, the candidate standings for Latino voters deemed likely to cast ballots in November were similar to those seen among all registered Latino voters, but the margin of error for likely voters was larger because of the smaller sample size.

Latinos were also propping up President Obama’s standing in the state. Among white voters, 52% approved how Obama was handling his job; among Latino voters, 64% approved.

Not even the most optimistic Republican oddsmaker has presumed that the GOP candidates could win the Latino vote outright, but the party has long sought to at least boost its standing among Latinos enough to narrow the traditional Democratic edge among other groups, such as women and nonpartisan voters. This year, Whitman has fought Brown to a near-draw for much of the campaign, but that has been due to her gains among nonpartisan voters and women, not Latinos.

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Whitman has reached for Latino support in myriad ways. She began airing ads on Spanish-language television stations after her June primary victory, highlighting her opposition to Arizona’s new immigration law. She also noted her opposition to the particulars of the 1994 California measure, Proposition 187, which would have denied taxpayer-financed services to illegal immigrants. She erected billboards in Latino communities, opened a campaign office in East Los Angeles and spoke to Spanish-language media outlets.

But she remains the favorite of only one-third of registered Latino voters, the survey found.

Vinka Valdivia of Escondido, a Latina who is a registered nonpartisan voter, said she favored Brown because he knew the workings of government and would watch out “for the middle class.”

“She is a corporate person who has run very big corporations, but she, for me, is not the right person to care about the middle class,” Valdivia said.

The survey indicated that Republicans like Whitman and Fiorina have an opening to rally Latino voters because of the backgrounds they bring to their races — Whitman as the former head of EBay and Fiorina as the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard.

When voters were asked whether they preferred a governor with experience in government or one who has “real-life experience in business,” white voters sided narrowly with the government veteran. Latinos, however, gave a 12-point advantage to the business world outsider. When voters were asked whether they were more concerned that Whitman would side with big corporations or that Brown would bow to labor unions, white voters cited Whitman and corporations by 8 points. Latinos were less worried, expressing the same concern by a mere 3 points, and they were no more concerned than whites with the personal money Whitman has spent on her campaign.

“There are certainly factors that would have argued for Whitman to do well,” said Manuel Pastor, a professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC.

Whitman herself has long hoped that her business background and the growing small-business pursuits of Latinos would provide some common ground. “Latinas are the fastest-growing segment of the market in starting new businesses,” she told supporters at an Orange County event in May 2009, explaining why Latinos were a key component of her plan for victory.

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But that affinity has yet to translate into political gains. Latino voters gave Brown the edge in a range of comparisons — including which candidate would bring a clear plan, energy and decisiveness to the governorship — that white voters thought were best represented by Whitman. Latinos gave Brown the edge over Whitman in handling the economy, immigration, developing jobs, taxes and education. White voters gave Whitman the edge in handling the economy and taxes.

Overall, while white voters gave Brown a net unfavorable rating, by a 47%-42% margin, Latino voters gave Brown a favorable rating, 34% to 26%. Whites (48% to 36%) and Latinos (34% to 22%) both gave Whitman a net unfavorable rating.

In both the races for governor and Senate, Latino voters were more likely than whites to say they did not yet know enough about the candidates to form an opinion. Because they constitute smaller percentages of voters, the views of African American and Asian voters could not be compared in a statistically meaningful way.

Democratic strategists have hoped that Whitman’s courtship of Latinos would be blunted by the GOP primary, during which challenger Steve Poizner engaged her in a dispute over illegal immigration. Trying to stave off abandonment by conservatives, Whitman aired an advertisement in which her campaign chairman, Pete Wilson, said that she would be “tough as nails” on illegal immigrants. Wilson, the former governor, is still derided by many Latinos for his support of Proposition 187 in 1994.

The poll did not directly test the effect of their immigration stances on Whitman and Fiorina, but the results on other questions suggested the issue is significant. In both races, Latinos gave Democrats an advantage in handling immigration by at least 20 points, higher than for all other issues except healthcare. (On that issue, asked only of the Senate candidates, Boxer held the edge over Fiorina by 31 points among Latinos.)

“The Latino voters are being motivated by multiple issues, but immigration is certainly one,” Pastor said, also citing healthcare and the environment.

Neither Latinos nor any other voter group demonstrates unanimity. Herman Gonzales, a Republican from East Los Angeles, said he was attracted to both Whitman and Fiorina by their business backgrounds. He considers Boxer “too polarizing,” and his negative view of Brown dates to Brown’s first tenure as governor. He said he was not turned off by Whitman’s stance on illegal immigration — or Fiorina’s even tougher one. Rather, he feels they do not go far enough in fighting what he called “the single-most threat” to good-paying California jobs.

“They might voice anti-this or pro-that, but they are different sides of the same coin,” he said.

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The Los Angeles Times/USC poll was conducted Sept. 15-22. Results for Latino registered voters have a margin of error of 5 points in either direction. The margin for white votes is 3.3 points in either direction. The survey was a joint project of the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. Additional Latino interviews were conducted by Latino Decisions.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com


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