This past Thursday and Friday, Miami played host to the Hispanic Leadership Network’s national conference, “Inspiring Action.” Hundreds upon hundreds of Florida GOP voters flocked to the Doral Resort and Spa for the exclusive opportunity to meet with and hear Governor Romney and Speaker Gingrich, among others, make their case to this diverse audience. Florida, as many of us already know, is home to the third-largest Hispanic population in the U.S. Important for us to remember, however, is the fact that Florida possesses one of the most politically diverse Hispanic populations in the nation as well. Whereas most Hispanics in the rest of the country overwhelmingly vote in the Democratic column, Florida Hispanics trend more conservative. Despite the presence of a large Cuban-American population (Cuban-Americans vote overwhelmingly Republican due to various historical reasons), there is a growing segment of the Hispanic population that is tuning in to what conservative candidates have to offer with respect to small business creation, school choice, and a host of other issues.
As many have recently pointed out, immigration isn’t exactly the highest priority for Florida Hispanics. Cubans and Puerto-Ricans by and large make up the bulk of the Hispanic voting bloc in Florida, and these are two populations that are largely not as affected by our nation’s broken immigration system. Further, Cubans, Puerto-Ricans, Colombians, and Nicaraguans, to name a few, tend to be much more concerned with foreign policy and a candidate’s stance toward Chavez, Castro, and Ortega and their illiberal policies in the region. Even the Puerto-Rican population in Florida trends in a different political direction than the Puerto-Rican electorate in New York. Puerto-Ricans in Florida have closer ties to the island, and also tend to own more small businesses. Thus, even though some sound the alarm for Republicans and their diminishing influence among Hispanic voters in Florida, I’m pretty confident that the conservative message will continue to have a lasting appeal among GOP voters in Florida.
However, a major caveat to the Republican Party’s ability to successfully compete for the Hispanic vote in Florida still relates to immigration, albeit in a roundabout manner. While a large segment of Hispanic voters in Florida do not live in the fear of being deported, it is important to remember that most Hispanics (whether in Florida or not) do have friends or family members who are undocumented. Further, rhetoric matters incredibly when framing the immigration debate, and this is something that for the most part has been lost among the Republican presidential aspirants. While it is quite obvious that the candidates were attempting to excite ‘the base,’ it should be even more obvious that their efforts to ignite the base may come at a big cost a few months from now. While the Pew Hispanic Center has indicated that enthusiasm for President Obama has diminished among Hispanics, thus presenting Republicans with a unique window of opportunity, the candidates have largely squandered this opportunity by employing a tone on immigration that thus far has managed to alienate many Hispanics and has damaged the Republican name brand among the Hispanic population. A recent poll conducted by Latino Decisions and impreMedia in December of 2011 revealed that 46% of Hispanics believe that the Republican Party ignores them, while an additional 27% feel that the Party is outright ‘hostile’ to Hispanics. These are frightening statistics for a party that is seeking to make significant inroads with this voting bloc.
The only way that Republicans can begin to reverse this trend is if various (prominent) leaders within the party lead the effort in calling for a more humane and less harsh tone on immigration. Already, Senator Marco Rubio (FL) and Governor Jeb Bush have been leading the effort to alter the GOP’s relationship with Hispanic voters. It is truly alarming that since the 2004 presidential elections, support for the GOP among Hispanics has taken such a drastic nose dive. Hispanics need to feel that they are actively welcomed into the conservative movement. This begins by effectively terminating the perception within the community that Republicans are ‘anti-immigrant.’ And the quickest way this can be done is by asserting that the GOP is pro-legal immigration, and actively supports a vibrant flow of immigration into the country.
While it is heartening that Republican candidates are starting to understand that more sensitivity is involved with respect to the immigration debate, the question arises as to whether or not this shift in tone is coming too late in the game. Will Governor Bush and Senator Rubio’s desire to re-brand the Republican Party as the champion of Hispanic interests fall on deaf ears? Much damage has been done in the past few years, and Hispanics, though unhappy with Obama, may simply vote for him by default. My guess is that Republicans, by employing more civility from now onward, can make headway on this issue. It is simply a matter of recognizing that the Hispanic vote cannot be taken for granted should the GOP expect to remain competitive in the coming election cycles.
Articles of Interest: