- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2003

The political Richter scales that measure shifts in America’s electoral tectonic plates seem to have gone haywire. Strategists from both parties are scrambling to figure out why Hispanics — traditionally a group solidly aligned with the Democrats — are quickly becoming this country’s newest swing bloc. Growing support for Republicans by this important constituency has a number of implications for American politics. Yet, a closer look at the political beliefs of Hispanics — as well as new steps taken by Republicans to win their support — makes these changes in America’s political fault lines less surprising.

Political tacticians of both parties understand the growing political clout of Hispanics. Indeed, the Census Bureau announced two weeks ago that they are now the nation’s largest minority group. With their numbers ballooning to 38.8 million in the latest official count, they bypassed African-Americans for the first time.

Yet, in addition to growing numbers, Hispanics interest political strategists for another reason — their shifting political allegiance. “This is a group that was a solid part of the Democrat coalition 20 years ago, that now could go either way,” one Republican strategist said. This shift is a direct result of Hispanic views on public policy and a growing chasm between their views and the position of many Democrats. “It’s like the Democrats poke a sharp stick [in] their eye on most issue,” the strategist said. A closer look at recent polls and election results underscores this point.

Democrat pollster Stan Greenberg estimates Republicans received 39 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2002, a record level for the GOP in a midterm election. Moreover, while Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore received 65 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000, a new poll by Democrat pollster Sergio Bendixen reports only 48 percent of Hispanics support the Democratic nominee in the 2004 election.

President Bush’s growing popularity among Hispanics accounts for some of the improvement. In Texas, then-Governor Bush doubled his support among these voters between his first election in 1994 and his reelection in 1998. His popularity among Hispanics is starting to pay dividends for his party nationally.

“Democrats are in great danger because the party has failed to counter Mr. Bush’s political offensive among Hispanics,” Bendixen told The Wall Street Journal last May. A Republican Party official agrees. “It used to be that when you went to meetings in the Hispanic community there would be one political person there — a Democrat. That’s changing. We are now showing up in the community, and when they understand our message they will vote Republican,” he said.

Yet, in addition to Mr. Bush’s personal appeal to these voters, there is a growing sense among Hispanics that they are more closely aligned to Republicans on several key issues. The recent Pew poll of Hispanics released six month ago supports this point. On the issue of jobs and the economy, 43 percent of Hispanics supported Mr. Bush’s policies compared to 36 percent for the Democrats in Congress.

Education is another part of the overall issue matrix where Mr. Bush and his party’s emphasis is resonating within this community. The Pew survey probed the most important issues surrounding voter choice. Among whites, education and the economy tied at around 20 percent. Among Hispanics, however, education trounced the economy 40 to 17 percent.

Finally, their culturally conservative views fit well with the Republican issue set. Hispanics are much more culturally conservative than whites. In the Pew survey, for example, 77 percent say abortion is “unacceptable” compared to 53 percent of whites. Hispanics are more culturally conservative than white voters on a host of other social issues, according to the Pew survey, including divorce and homosexuality. Inexplicably, the current crop of Democratic presidential nominees seems to take great pride in dramatizing their differences with Hispanics. As one GOP strategist said, “It’s almost like if you’re Hispanic and Catholic and want to follow your beliefs, the Democrats are saying you’re not eligible to [be] part of this party.”

Hispanics are not poised to replace southern white males as a new bedrock group of supporters for the Republican Party. Yet, the American political terrain is shifting. Due to growing agreement on issues and successful new efforts to court this community, Hispanics are definitely in play, becoming a new swing constituency on the American political landscape.

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