Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hispanic voters still like Democrats more than Republicans, but they are much less enthusiastic about heading to the polls in this year’s elections, according to a broad survey released Tuesday.

The lack of excitement compared with 2008 could potentially deprive Democrats of a major voting bloc they will need to maintain their majorities in Congress in November.

The Pew Hispanic Center, after surveying Hispanic voters in August and September, said only about half of them are absolutely certain they will vote in November, compared with 70 percent of all registered voters.

That enthusiasm gap is stark just two years after Hispanic groups made a major push to register and turn out voters, who overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama for president. A drop-off in support could imperil the president’s party in the upcoming congressional elections.

Hispanics overwhelmingly still favored Democrats over the GOP, 65 percent to 22 percent - a trend that, despite a dip in 2004, has generally persisted for years. But Republican Hispanics are more excited about voting this year than are Democratic Hispanics, also mirroring overall trends.

“They show the very same enthusiasm gap. Republican Latinos are more positive, the Democratic Latinos are more demoralized. How is that different from anyone else? It isn’t,” said James G. Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland who studies voting and immigration policy.

He said Hispanics follow the same turnout patterns as the general population: Hispanic voters take more interest in presidential elections than midterm elections.

Pew interviewed 618 registered Hispanic voters in August and September. One surprising finding was that immigration does not top the list of concerns of Hispanic voters.

“Rather, they rank education, jobs and health care as their top three issues of concern for this year’s congressional campaign. Immigration ranks as the fifth most important issue for Latino registered voters,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the center and the report’s author.

That finding surprised Clarrisa Martinez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, who said fights over issues such as Arizona’s immigration law play an “energizing role” for turning out Hispanic voters.

She said there are competing influences on Hispanic voters. On the one hand is a poor economy and disenchantment with the lack of action on a broad immigration bill in Congress that could depress turnout. But she also said her organization is seeing “a growing concern that Latinos are being treated as second-class citizens,” and that could drive voters to the polls.

“These factors are competing against each other and we’re going to see which wins out in the November election,” she said.

Democratic lawmakers seeking re-election are hoping immigration is a motivating factor.

Just before Congress adjourned for the campaign season, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to force a debate on a bill to legalize illegal immigrant students, known as the Dream Act. He tried to have that debate as part of the annual defense policy debate, but it was blocked by Republicans who said that was the wrong forum for considering immigration.

Mr. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, is counting on a large turnout of Hispanics to boost him in his re-election bid against Republican challenger Sharron Angle.

But Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said conservatives have a chance to win Hispanic votes this year, if they bring the right message.

“When conservatives reach out to Latinos and you have a candidate that is staunchly conservative on social issues but also has a palatable position on immigration, Latino voters will respond favorably,” he said.

Mr. Aguilar is finishing a 10-day bus tour in California trying to spur Hispanic support for Carly Fiorina, the Republican nominee who is trying to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat. Mr. Aguilar said many Hispanic voters are pro-life and oppose gay marriage and are open to his pitch to back Mrs. Fiorina.

“The lesson for conservatives from that poll is if you reach out to Latinos they’ll respond favorably. Obviously, if you just go out with negative rhetoric on immigration and enforcement-only positions on immigration, you’re not going to do better,” he said.

He said his goal is to have Mrs. Fiorina win one-third of the Hispanic vote in November.

In 2008, Hispanics nationwide voted for Mr. Obama over Sen. John McCain by 67 percent to 31 percent. Four years earlier, President George W. Bush won about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.

The Pew survey included 618 registered voters and was conducted from Aug. 17 through Sept. 19.

Ms. Martinez said there are competing data from other polls about the enthusiasm of Hispanic voters, including one survey that found in states with large Hispanic populations where there are major contests this year, including Florida, Texas, Colorado and California, voters were energized.

She said Republicans do have a chance to win Hispanic voters, but have squandered it in recent years by taking a strict line on immigration enforcement.

“They are taking away the choice Latino voters could make,” she said.

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