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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON POLITICS

The Latino Vote Is Up for Grabs

If the GOP would stop insulting new citizens, it might do well with this largely uncommitted, fast-growing electorate.

March 05, 1998|HARRY P. PACHON | Harry P. Pachon is Kenan Professor of Political Studies and Chicano/Latino Studies at Pitzer College and president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute

Some congressional Republicans, still angry about the victory of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) over Republican incumbent Robert Dornan, continue to raise the U.S. citizenship question about Latino voters. Latino voters, who include the largest group of immigrants to become U.S. citizens, justly feel unjustly targeted. The Republican probes of voter and naturalization records are partly responsible for alienating what support the GOP had in the Latino community.

Democrats, however, shouldn't rest too comfortably. They should be asking how strong the Latino shift to their party is.

The data show that Latino support for either party is paper thin, and that even the smallest shift could affect the outcome of future elections. Consider for example that the Republican governor of Texas, George W. Bush, and the Republican mayor of New York, Rudolph V. Giuliani, have made substantial inroads into the Latino community. And it takes only a 5% shift in the Latino vote in California and a 4% shift in Texas to swing the general state elections one percentage point.

The possibility of a shift in support is real. The Latino voting bloc is characterized by large numbers of newly naturalized citizens. They constitute up to one-third of the Latino voters in California. And Latino voters are predominantly young, on average nearly a decade younger than white voters.

These two facts are significant because younger, newer voters do not have political allegiances that are deeply rooted.

Consider these findings from recent surveys by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute of the Claremont Colleges:

* When asked if they are strong Democrats or strong Republicans, more than two-thirds of the Latino voters in California and more than half in Texas and Florida say that their party affiliation is weak.

* When Latino independent voters are asked which party they lean toward, two out of three express no preference.

* Nearly half of all Latino voters say that neither party is better at solving the nation's problems.

These results should concern both parties. There are 52 congressional districts with more than 100,000 Latino constituents. But few people inside the Washington Beltway realize the magnitude and growing significance of the Latino electorate outside the traditional Southwestern states and Florida.

Why have political officials been so slow to recognize the importance of this voting bloc? For one thing, most have been caught off guard by the speed with which the Latino population has grown. Cook County, Ill., has more Latinos than Arizona, Colorado or New Mexico. For another, the Latino vote is dispersed: Nearly half of the congressional districts with more than 100,000 Latino constituents lie outside the East Los Angeles area. And there's also a misperception that the bulk of Latinos are too young to vote, or are not yet U.S. citizens. But recent regulatory pressure on immigrants at both state and federal levels has spurred an unprecedented naturalization of Latinos, creating a huge new bloc of voters. Most significant, in a new trend, young Latinos are voting at the same rate as their white non-Latino counterparts.

The GOP can ill afford to write this vote off. In the last presidential election, Bill Clinton increased his share among Cuban Americans and other Latino Floridians, who historically have voted for the Republican standard-bearer, taking 44% of that vote in 1996. The result? Clinton carried Florida.

For Democrats, the stakes are equally high. Seventeen of the 52 congressional districts with heavy Latino constituencies are currently represented by Republicans. Any hopes the Democrats have of regaining a congressional majority will rest in part on the battles in these districts.

The solution is to reach out to these communities. Witness the positive response that Vice President Al Gore received when he announced the administration's initiatives to improve education in Latino neighborhoods in Spanish-language news media and in the company of Latino civic leaders. The GOP could learn a valuable lesson, and there's still time before the next round of congressional elections: Drop the witch hunts for illegal alien voters and pay more attention to the legal Latino voters whose numbers are on the rise.

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