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On Latino Voters, Bush Gets It

Election 2000: The Democrats have some work to do to retain the two-thirds usually loyal to the party.

August 06, 2000|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Now that the Republican Party--or to be more precise, Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign--has laid on its "We Love Latinos" shtick at the GOP convention, expect to hear a lot more about the so-called "Latino vote" as the Democrats prepare to open their convention here next week.

But don't be fooled by simplistic analysis that would pigeonhole thousands of newly enfranchised Latino voters, as "soccer moms" were in 1996. You remember soccer moms--the busy suburban housewives who helped President Clinton defeat GOP nominee Bob Dole four years ago. In the 2000 campaign, many in the news media have focused on Latinos as the "new" voter bloc that might decide a close election between Bush and Vice President Al Gore.

It's going to be more complicated than that. What could determine how Latinos cast their presidential ballots is the difference between the "Los Lobos vote" and the "Vicente Fernandez vote." And right now the Bush campaign seems to grasp the distinction better than the Democrats.

The Republicans even went so far as to have Fernandez, the popular Mexican singer who is the best-known interpreter of traditional ranchera music, sing at their Philadelphia convention the same night Bush gave his acceptance speech.

It was a remarkable gesture that the English-language media largely missed. However, it boggled the minds of Spanish-speaking reporters who were there. Here was a Mexican cultural icon at a political gathering where--four years earlier--any Mexican who showed up ran the risk of being held for deportation by allies of then-California Gov. Pete Wilson.

Wilson, of course, is the bete noire of the GOP's 2000 campaign. Republicans would just as soon Latinos forget how Wilson tried to build a national reputation, and a run for the presidency, in the early '90s by going after illegal immigrants with Proposition 187 and other measures.

More than anything else, Wilson's persistent immigrant bashing is what frightened thousands of Mexican citizens who had been living in the United States to become U.S. citizens and register to vote in unprecedented numbers, mostly for Democrats.

Latino political activists have been riding the momentum Wilson handed them ever since. The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, for instance, is aiming to sign up 1 million new Latino voters this year, to add to the 4.9 million who cast ballots in 1996.

This brings me back to the important distinction between the Los Lobos vote and the Vicente Fernandez vote.

Los Lobos, the popular Chicano rockers from East L.A., are among the entertainers who will be featured at the Democratic convention. Their most loyal fans are second- and third-generation Mexican Americans. About two-thirds of these assimilated citizens always vote for Democrats. That has been the case since 1960, when the John F. Kennedy campaign set up Viva Kennedy! clubs across the Southwest. During that same period, Republicans usually have been content to claim the remaining third of the Latino vote.

Yet especially popular GOP candidates, like Richard M. Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984, have been able to win close to 50% of the Latino vote. That is what the Bush campaign is aiming for this year, and it could well happen.

The Texas governor worked so hard for the Latino vote in the primary campaign that he came into the Republican convention already having assured himself of his one-third of the Los Lobos vote--those assimilated Latinos who are sympathetic to the GOP. But after the fiesta his people put on in Philadelphia, Bush can start whittling away at the two-thirds of the Latino vote that usually goes to Democrats. He began doing that by reaching out to the Latino voters who are naturalized immigrants--people for whom Vicente Fernandez's traditional music is a warm reminder of home.

The political loyalties of these new voters are not set in stone. Which is why, in another great act of political theater, the Bush campaign asked California Assemblyman Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) to address the GOP convention on its climactic evening, in Spanish.

Maldonado's speech was the safe, patriotic rhetoric that is typical at U.S. conventions. It stressed the hard work and sacrifices made by Maldonado's father, a former bracero, so his son could go to college, become mayor of Santa Maria and, eventually, be elected to the state Legislature. To Latino immigrants more accustomed to being lambasted by Republicans, it must have resonated like the Gettysburg Address.

Say what you will about George W. Bush. When it comes to Latinos, especially Mexican Americans, he gets it. And the challenge facing Gore and the Democrats as they descend on the most heavily Mexican American city in this country is: How do we top that?

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