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The Right Has Room to Woo Latinos

February 11, 2001|STEWART J. LAWRENCE | Stewart J. Lawrence is president of a Washington-based Latino market research and communications firm

The confirmation of John Ashcroft as U.S. attorney general was a major setback for pro-choice liberals. Whether or not Ashcroft intervenes in abortion-related court cases, as many liberals fear, his visibility and prominence will add momentum and legitimacy to the pro-life cause.

In fact, polls suggest that public support for this cause has grown steadily in recent years. Since 1995, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as pro-choice has fallen from 56% to 48%, while the number identifying as pro-life has increased from 33% to 42%. Liberals tend to blame this shift on the pro-life movement's success at the state level on "second-tier" issues, such as parental consent or federal insurance coverage for abortion. But the source of the shift may be demographic. Voters, especially those born after Roe vs. Wade, are simply growing more conservative on abortion.

Of all the voters who are likely to influence the abortion debate, none are more important than Latinos. Now 32 million strong, Latinos in 2005 will surpass African Americans as the nation's most populous minority.

The degree of Latino opposition to abortion is a matter of some dispute. Most major polls on abortion do not include sufficient numbers of Latino respondents to report reliable statistics. Polls conducted among Latinos exclusively can be perceived as biased or partisan. For example, when a December 1999 Zogby poll found that 69% of Latinos in California agreed that abortion was a form of manslaughter and nearly 60% opposed partial-birth abortions, liberals denounced the poll as tendentious and misleading. Last July, however, a nationwide poll conducted by the public opinion research firm Hispanic Trends found that nearly half of all Latinos supported an outright ban on abortion, more than twice the percentage found among the public at large.

If Latinos are such strong social conservatives on abortion and on other issues from gun control to crime, why do so many continue to vote Democratic? First, Latinos believe in a role for government, especially in the economy. When Republicans seem to argue for unrestrained free markets and for the elimination of social programs, as they did during the Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich years, Latinos are susceptible to appeals from their liberal leaders to vote Democratic.

More important is the immigration issue. Nearly every Latino family has at least one relative who is seeking to enter the U.S. A steady drumbeat of attacks on U.S. immigration policy--and immigrants--from the nativist wing of the Republican Party since the mid-1990s dealt a devastating blow to Republicans in 1996 and kept George W. Bush from capturing a larger share on the Latino vote. Bush ended up with a 35% share, slightly less than the 37% Reagan received in 1980. Polls suggest, however, that had Republicans not opposed amnesty for certain classes of illegal immigrants, Bush's Latino support could have topped 40%.

Yet Bush's election, coupled with changes in domestic and international policy, could now lead increasing numbers of Latinos to embrace Republican candidates and issues by 2004. Bush's proposed tax cut will find strong support in the growing Latino middle class, while his call for expanded involvement by faith-based organizations in social services should receive a favorable reception among the many Latinos who still aspire to be middle class.

With the election of Vicente Fox as Mexican president, there is a growing possibility of a new bilateral framework for regulating the flow of Mexican workers into the U.S. economy. While liberals and the labor lobby are likely to deride the Bush-Fox plan as a throwback to the infamous bracero program of the 1940s and 1950s, the plan's proposed safeguards could ensure a fairer deal for low-skilled Mexican workers. Judging by past Latino support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, Bush's effort to expand U.S.-Mexico economic cooperation is likely to be received warmly.

And what of the abortion issue? The trends seem to point toward a steady erosion of support for traditional pro-choice positions. Polls indicate that Latinos are sharply divided: U.S.-born Latinos and those with higher English fluency tend to be more favorable to abortion, while foreign-born and primarily Spanish-speaking Latinos remain staunchly opposed. In addition, only South Americans and Cuban Americans generally support abortion, while strong majorities of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans are opposed. For Republicans, this is largely good news, as foreign-born, Spanish-speaking Mexicans are the fastest-growing component of the U.S. Latino population.

None of this means that Latinos can be counted on to vote for or against a particular candidate based solely on his or her stance on abortion. But Republicans may be in a position to neutralize the traditionally pro-Democratic impact of immigration and economic issues. A similar opportunity exists to exploit issues such as crime, gun control and school choice, on which Latinos tend to be more conservative. But time is of the essence: In the next 10 years, Latinos will account for 43% of U.S. population growth, and one in every four new voters is likely to be Latino.

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