Hispanic vote gets attention

The Pete Wilson legacy may hurt Bush in the November election.

Remember the Angry White Male? The Soccer Moms? Irate white guys were the decisive factor in the Republican congressional victories of 1994. Two years later, suburban women ferrying little Peles in their vans decided that Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America was actually a Contract On America. They punished Republicans.

This year there is talk that Hispanics are a key voting bloc. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush have spoken at the national conventions of the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens. Both speak Spanish on the campaign trail. Both have Web sites in Spanish. Bush has even sent out his half-Mexican, Spanish-speaking nephew to win votes.

What a difference from four years ago, when Bill Clinton barely paid attention to Hispanic voters and Bob Dole refused to fight the anti-immigrant tone that defined the GOP of the mid-1990s.

The national attention paid the Hispanic vote this year has never been seen in American politics.

And no wonder. Some 75 percent to 80 percent of Hispanics live in nine states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Texas) that have 202 of the 270 electoral votes needed to become president.

To be sure, the Hispanic vote is not going to be as decisive as the Angry White Males or the Soccer Moms of years past. Simply put, a lot of Hispanics do not vote. Potentially, the Hispanic vote could reach 14 million — that is the Census Bureau’s estimate of American citizens of Hispanic descent who are 18 or older. But as of early this summer, only 6.8 million had registered. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates 5.6 million will actually turn out in November.

That would make up about 5 percent of the total vote. Half of what it could be.

Still, those 5.6 million voters represent an increase of 700,000 over the 1996 election. Which is not necessarily good news for Bush, despite the inroads he has made with Hispanic voters. A national poll released by VISTA Magazine this month gives Gore a relatively thin (for a Democrat) 49-37 lead among Hispanic voters who became citizens before 1994, but a whopping 60-29 lead among those who became citizens in 1995 and thereafter.

Why? It comes down to propositions 187 and 227.

Hispanic voters who became citizens after 1995 were galvanized by those two California ballot propositions, which sought to deny services to children of illegal immigrants and to end bilingual education. Both measures were backed by the Pete Wilson brand of Republicanism that has driven Hispanic voters away from the GOP.

Sure, Bush has unambiguously condemned Wilson-style xenophobia. It has worked to some extent.

Nationally, the VISTA poll had Bush trailing 54-32 among Hispanic voters, while a Knight-Ridder poll released around the same time had him behind 50-34, but those Democrat leads are a significant improvement over the GOP performance in previous elections. Clinton beat Dole by 51 points, while Dad lost to Clinton by 35 and to Dukakis by 39.

Bush is particularly strong among Hispanics in Florida — what galvanized Cuban voters there was that the Clinton administration sent armed troopers to pry Elian away. In Florida, Knight-Ridder has it 58-26 for George W. among all Hispanics and 75-12 among Cubans. The Texas governor is strong in his home state, too. The VISTA poll had him winning among Texas Hispanics (no numbers provided), and Knight-Ridder had him behind only 45-40. In a state where Hispanics traditionally vote overwhelmingly Democrat Bush is making it a real race.

Yet there remains for Bush — and for all Republicans — the problem of those post-1995 citizens. The majority of them became citizens so they could vote against the GOP. The majority of them live in California, the most populous state.

Bush would have a better chance here if he could make a big dent in that 31-point lead Gore has among new citizens.

Is it likely? Call it the Pete Wilson legacy.

— Roger Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology

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