Is “Dubya” the GOP’s missing link to Latinos?
Veterans of the Bush administration say that Mitt Romney should follow his predecessor’s lead when it comes to Latinos.
By JORDAN FABIAN
Is George W. Bush the missing link between the Republican Party and Latino voters?
With the nation suffering from “Bush fatigue” after his eight tumultuous years in the White House, the 43rd president has rarely received acknowledgement since leaving office in 2009. But with the Republican Party facing a steep deficit with Latino voters this year, many in the party see Bush’s ability to connect with Latinos as a missing asset at the top of the ticket.
No Republicans have publicly asked Bush to get involved with this year’s campaign. But several veterans of the Bush administrations are clamoring for Mitt Romney to take a page out of Bush’s book when it comes to reaching out to Latino voters.
“Gov. Bush had some kind of personal quality that made it easier to connect with the Hispanic community, despite his privilege,” Alberto Gonzales, whom Bush appointed as the nation’s first Latino attorney general, told Univision News in an interview last week.
Although Latinos did not always agree with Bush’s foreign or domestic policies, Gonzales said, they sensed in Bush “someone who respected them.”
Bush had first-hand experience dealing with a large Latino community during his nearly half dozen years as governor of Texas. By the end of Bush’s governorship in 2000, the state had a Latino population of over 6.6 million, largely comprised of Mexican-Americans, the largest U.S. Latino ethnic group and voting bloc.
The former president’s allies also remember a leader who took a thoughtful approach to immigration gleaned from his service as a border-state governor.
That personal background contrasts with Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who presided over a Northeastern state where the proportion of the Latino population is smaller than the national average.
“For Bush, it was a very natural connection with that voter. When we look at Romney being from Massachusetts … obviously it’s different,” said Mercy Viana Schlapp, who worked as director of specialty media in the Bush White House.
The differences between Bush’s approach and subsequent Republican campaigns remain stark, and many political observers believe that helps account for the GOP’s struggles in attracting Latino voters.
During his 2004 reelection campaign, Bush engaged in heavy Latino outreach, cutting ads in English and Spanish geared toward the community while employing a grassroots get-out-the-vote operation in 30 states that targeted Latino voters.
That year, he won between 40 and 44 percent of the Latino vote, which helped him achieve victory in key southwestern states with sizable Latino populations, such as Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. Bush, who campaigned under the mantle of “compassionate conservatism”, made a major push for comprehensive immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, which helped engender more goodwill with Latinos but ended up being a politically-costly defeat for the administration.
Since then, Republicans haven’t come close to attracting Bush levels of Latino support. Barack Obama defeated John McCain 67-31 percent among Latino voters in 2008, helping him flip those southwestern swing states into the Democrats’ column. And this year, Romney is trailing Obama by a similar margin. A January Univision/ABC News/Latino Decisions poll showed Romney trailing Obama 67-25 percent with Latino voters.
And while Bush had the benefit of running uncontested for the GOP nomination in 2004, both McCain and Romney competed in bruising Republican primaries that featured harsh rhetoric on immigration that alienated many Latinos.
In the same Univision poll, 72 percent of Latino voters said they believed the Republican Party either doesn’t care about Latinos or is actively hostile toward them.
Republicans will need to work quickly to remedy that since attracting Latino support will be even more important in 2012 than it was in 2004. While an estimated 7 million Latinos voted eight years ago, this year, experts believe up to 12 million Latinos could show up to the polls. Latino voters could affect the outcomes of the election outside of traditional population centers in the southwest and Florida in states such as Virginia and North Carolina.
Republicans say they are better equipped to appeal to Latinos than they were in 2008 since they will be able to deploy charismatic Latino elected officials, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, to help make Romney’s case that he’s better equipped than President Obama to fix the economy. That group also includes Bush’s brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is fluent in Spanish and remains extremely popular with Latinos in his home state.
“In 2012, Republicans will build off of the gains made in 2010, when a slew of Hispanic Republicans were elected as Governors and Members of Congress. Republicans will continue to gain ground because their message of economic security will resonate with the Latino community, which has been disproportionately hurt by Obama’s economic policies,” said Republican National Committee spokesperson Alexandra Franceschi.
“I think that he has a wonderful group of Hispanic surrogates that will work to get him connected,” said Schlapp.
But beyond deploying Latino surrogates, launching bilingual advertising geared toward Latinos, and softening his tough stance on immigration, observers say Romney himself will need to overcome what has been a major problem for him on the campaign trail: forming a personal bond with voters and erasing the perception that he’s an out-of-touch politician.
“I’m not talking about a marketing campaign to sell himself to the Latino community, that would be too slick,” said Gonzales. “He has to develop some sense of trust that’s not there right now.”
That requires campaigning in person in Latino communities — something Romney has done little of outside Florida — and supporting Latino candidates for office at all levels, according to Gonzales and others.
“It has to be layered efforts. You have to have a lot of boots on the ground,” added Melissa Salas Blair, a conservative activist in Texas and founder of Puentes Research & Communications.
“It’s not that difficult, but it’s a lot of work. It does take a lot of money and manpower,” said Jennifer Sevilla Korn, the executive director of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network and Bush’s director of Hispanic outreach in 2004.
Romney’s campaign claimed it was still too early in the process to prejudge how the candidate will perform with Latinos.
“Most Americans, including Hispanics, are just now tuning in and getting to know Gov. Romney, and we’re going to have an opportunity in the coming months to share Gov. Romney’s vision with Hispanics,” added Romney adviser Albert Martinez.
Bush veterans are hopeful that Romney will take their advice to heart considering what is at stake. Korn estimated that the campaign has approximately two months to develop and begin to execute its plan if it’s to be successful.
“I don’t think it’s over. I think he really has an opportunity to get into these communities. He just needs to do it,” added Schlapp. “That’s going to be a big challenge. But I think he’s up to the task.”
(Photo: Screenshot, YouTube).