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GOP Makes Gains Among Latinos

Votes for Republicans in recall show Democrats' challenge in halting defections, Times poll shows.

October 11, 2003|Rich Connell and Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writers

Latino support for the recall and top Republican candidates in Tuesday's election increased with voters' income, underscoring the challenges California Democrats face as they try to maintain their edge with a key, upwardly mobile constituency.

Overall, Latinos voted against the recall and for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, about 55% in each instance, according to The Times' exit poll.

But those margins were less than hoped for by Democrats, who have garnered about 70% of the Latino vote in recent elections. The slippage Tuesday was partly because higher-income Latinos and many living in Southern California suburban counties gravitated toward the GOP, the poll showed.

The contours of the Latino vote add fresh evidence that California's largest and fastest-growing ethnic group may not be as predictable -- or loyal -- as Democrats once hoped, especially as increasing numbers of Latinos climb the economic ladder.

Statewide, low-income Latinos opposed the recall and supported Bustamante by the widest margins: In each case more than three out of five voters in households earning less than $40,000, according to the poll.

By comparison, half of Latino voters in homes earning $60,000 to $100,000 voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), slightly more than voted for Bustamante (46%). Those voters were also about evenly split on recalling Davis.

In Latino households with earnings above $100,000, 57% supported the recall and 60% voted for Schwarzenegger or McClintock. The pattern followed that of voters overall.

In all, 45% of Latinos backed the recall and 41% voted for Schwarzenegger or McClintock.

There were also geographic differences among Latinos that paralleled overall voting trends. In Los Angeles County, which rejected the recall, 56% of Latinos opposed Davis' ouster. But in the fast-growing, more suburbanized counties stretching from San Bernardino to San Diego, Latinos supported the recall by a slim margin.

To head off future defections, Democrats must work at giving middle-class Latinos more reason to stick with them, said Art Torres, the state party chairman.

"When they assimilate, they embrace all the other American values because they earn more money and want to keep more money," Torres said.

He said he believed the recent increase in the vehicle license fee was a huge issue for Latinos, as it was for voters in general.

"We as a party have to recognize that and make clear what we are doing for them," Torres said. "We not only need to be the good party on education and social issues, we're going to [have to] be the good party on fiscal issues."

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino polling and public policy think tank, cautioned against reading too much into what he called a fluke election.

Many Latinos who helped deliver recent Democratic victories simply grew unhappy with Sacramento's performance, Gonzalez said.

It would take at least three elections showing Latinos' movement away from Democrats to establish a trend, he said, and that hasn't occurred.

Trend or not, Tuesday's results showed that no candidate or party can take the Latino vote for granted, said Erica Bernal of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

"It increases our capital," she said. "All parties and candidates need to understand that they need to go after us."

During the recall, Democrats and Republicans alike made strong plays for Latino voters, who according to the Times poll cast 11% of the ballots.

Davis signed a law granting driver's licenses to illegal residents. Democratic and union mailers stressed Schwarzenegger's ties to former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who alienated many Latinos by backing Proposition 187, the initiative that sought to restrict services to illegal immigrants.

For his part, Schwarzenegger played up his immigrant's journey. And Bustamante frequently recounted his family's Central Valley farm worker roots and was a ubiquitous presence on Spanish-language media.

In the end, the Times survey showed, a higher proportion of African Americans voted for Bustamante, the only prominent Democrat on the ballot, than Latinos, 65% and 55% respectively.

The Times poll interviewed 5,205 voters, including 582 Latinos, as they left 74 precincts around the state. The margin of sampling error for Latinos is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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