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Latino electorate at a crossroads

Latino electorate at a crossroads

(This article was originally published on The Hill)

By every account Republicans face a huge disadvantage in comparison to Democrats with the Latino electorate. But a long-term engagement and outreach effort promises to make all the difference, a difference in which Democrats have more to lose and Republicans have much to gain.

Even the most novice political observer can see that years of work in Latino communities have paid off for Democrats. Indeed, the party has in some ways enjoyed an open field, and decades of political outreach, presence in the communities and positive brand building around liberal ideas have allowed the party to build a formidable front with the U.S. Latino electoral bloc.

Since 1980, Republican presidential candidates have won 5 out of the last 9 elections, in spite of struggles to achieve even 30 percent of the Hispanic vote. With the exception of George W. Bush, who garnered 40 percent of the vote in 2004, all other Republican candidates achieved lackluster levels: Ronald Reagan received 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1980; George H.W. Bush had 30 percent in 1988; Bob Dole took 21 percent in 1996; John McCain reached 31 percent in 2008; and Mitt Romney pulled in 27 percent in 2012.  By contrast, all Democratic candidates in the same races achieved a majority of the Hispanic vote.  

Even in a red state like Texas, 56 percent of Hispanics self-identify as Democrats and only 16 percent as Republicans according to polls in 2012. The disparity is in many ways the result of a conversation dominated by powerful progressive voices – liberal professors, and non-profits who leverage government grants and programs to build their networks. It comes from unions that use employee dollars to bankroll mostly Democratic candidates, from Spanish and English language media which deliver policy stories with a progressive slant, and Latino Hollywood stars famous for their promotion of liberal causes. 

In contrast, for conservatives, Latino communities remain a relatively untouched and barely understood constituency. Their absence from the conversation in Hispanic households has allowed demonization of their policy intentions to go unanswered. The longstanding neglect of the electorate by Republican Party operatives and consultants has aided in widening the gap.

One can also see why folks at Battleground Texas – a liberal organization created to persuade Latinos to support a liberal agenda and progressive candidates – are wildly motivated to turn out and register Hispanic voters.

Nonetheless, bad as it may appear, the Left has succeeded largely because they have done a better job at outreach and marketing of lesser ideas. Latinos have not rejected conservative principles, but have endured a distortion of conservative ideas – a hatchet job perpetrated by the liberal left. Worse yet, they have endured an absence of a conversation about the virtues and true intentions of conservative, market-based ideas – a dereliction of duty perpetrated by the conservative right.

Beyond the current recent voting history, consider who we Hispanics say we are, ideologically. When asked by Pew, 33 percent of us self identified as conservatives, 32 percent as moderate, while only 31 percent self identified as liberal.

The ideological divide is even more favorable for conservatives in faith communities. Among Hispanics who affiliate with evangelical denominations, 40 percent identify as conservative against just 25 percent who identify as liberal. Even Hispanics in the Catholic Church lean towards conservatism – with 34 percent conservative against just 28 percent liberal.

While opinions may differ on who is to blame for the past neglect, it has been my observation, that with few exceptions (including George W. Bush), the Republican Party has long taken a failed approach with Latinos. The party long assumed that their agenda of individual autonomy and a market economy – in which the private sector is unleashed and government allows wealth and prosperity to permeate through all social levels – would sell itself. But no product or service succeeds without some marketing. During the 2012 election cycle, 75 percent of Texas Hispanic voters had not been directly contacted by parties or organizations – it is clear Republicans must do a better sales job

This is where the opportunity lies for conservatives.

What if we radically changed strategy? Namely, what would happen if the conservatives aggressively shifted resources and attention to the U.S. Latino community at an unprecedented scale?

What would happen if the conversation across the U.S. Latino communities turned towards market principles and away from the centralized big government approach? What if conservatives aggressively sold their ideas of more efficient government, expanded free trade, a smart immigration policy, and a laser focus on growing the private sector? And what if Latinos knew that the intentions of the leftist policies while admirable, have widely failed? The conservative policies have actually been just as admirable, but the results have been far more successful.

We are already seeing some of the results. Lately, without much fanfare, conservatives have been making quiet progress. 

The president’s signature federal policy, the Affordable Care Act, has fallen out of favor. A full 47 percent of Hispanics now disapprove of the law according to a Pew Research Center poll. In Colorado it’s much worse, with 57 percent disapproving – and even in Texas, a majority, 51 percent, now disapprove.

Last week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed approval of President Obama has fallen by 23 points among Latinos since January, 2013. His promises to tackle immigration reform, cut wasteful federal spending, and get the economy moving again, have not come true and Hispanics, like all Americans, have taken notice. 

With all that’s been said about the disadvantage, increased Hispanic turnout in Texas may not necessarily benefit Democrats – if conservatives do the hard work. That’s because two important variables, turnout and party vote, determine which party will benefit most from heightened Latino participation. Turnout of pro-liberty, pro free market Hispanics can lead to big rewards for conservatives – without even having to gain majorities.

For example, according to a Latino Decisions analysis, if Hispanics compromise 25 percent of the electorate (as compared to 22 percent in 2012), and 40 percent vote for the GOP candidate, the Republican Party would win with huge margins at the statewide level. That’s because the Democratic Party already has large percentages of the Latino vote, and any swing in the other direction would be disastrous for their candidates.

But to make those gains a reality, conservatives must drive a winning conversation – one that pits a bloated central government deciding important life decisions for us, against a government that unleashed the private sector and puts its trust on the vast capacities and innovations of its people. 

It will make all the difference.

Garza is executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, a conservative advocacy organization focusing on Latinos.