Politics

Broadening the Base

Review: ‘A Race for the Future: How Conservatives Can Break the Liberal Monopoly on Hispanic Americans’

Mexico soccer fans wave their national flag in Arlington, Texas / AP

We've all read it a thousand times: Republicans are not popular with Hispanic voters. Beyond that broad statement, though, there's a rich story to be told of how and why Republicans fail with this increasingly important demographic. Mike Gonzalez of the Heritage Foundation is out with a new book, A Race For The Future: How Conservatives Can Break the Liberal Monopoly on Hispanic Americans, which attempts to tell that story—and to show how Republicans might win Hispanics back.

One of Gonzalez's most important points is that, absent government meddling, the idea of "Hispanics" would not exist in the first place. "Hispanic" is a term fabricated by bureaucrats in the 1970s. Progressives in Washington were eager to lump all Spanish speakers into one category in order to collect data on them, and then qualify Spanish speakers for protected treatment by making them a minority group.

To illustrate just how silly this blanket minority designation was, Gonzalez points out that a Mexican from California may have descended from Mexican Americans whose families have lived in that state since the 1700s, and whose ancestors called themselves white before the U.S. Census Bureau told them they were brown. In fact, Mexican-Americans were once forbidden from wedding African Americans because they had been legally designated white in the 1800s. But only people of color can qualify for minority status, so Mexican-Americans became "brown" in the eyes of the law.

Of course, the term "Hispanic" enjoyed only a limited reign of favor with liberal do-gooders, before "Latino" replaced it. Hispanic was deemed too suggestive of Spain's colonization of Latin America, a notion Gonzalez finds laughable since Latino is also technically a colonial term. It comes from the phrase "Latin American," which the French coined during their ill-fated attempt to take over Mexico in the 1860s.

But whatever label you apply, Spanish speakers do not constitute one race, culture, or history. A Puerto Rican who can move freely between the island and the mainland has a vastly different immigration experience and relationship with the United States than a Guatemalan fleeing violence in her country.

Furthermore, the minority label is demeaning. Many waves of immigrants, for example the Irish, were once set apart as outside ethnic groups, but they fought their way into the mainstream. Now Irish culture is a celebrated part of American culture. In making "Hispanics" a protected minority group, "The government was now officially telling the arriving Latin American immigrants and their children, along with those who had been here before them: No, you're not like the previous waves of immigrants, so don't aspire to their fate."

Once Hispanics became a "group," they soon became wedded to the Democratic Party. One cause is quite simple: Democrats have been smart about courting them. Republicans have not.

Although liberals are largely responsible for pushing the terms Hispanic and Latino, they are not fooled by their own terminology. When it comes time for Democrats to target voters, they make sure to cater to specific ethnic and national groups within the "Latino" designation. Gonzalez details how this played out in the 2012 presidential race:

Obama's 2012 campaign succeeded wildly not just by being able to tell a Puerto Rican from a Cuban but also a Puerto Rican in New York from one in Florida. While Mitt Romney's befuddled campaign translated English-language ads into Spanish, the Obama campaign and its super-PACs launched a Spanish-language operation that micro-targeted people. The ads in Florida's I-4 corridor had Puerto Rican actors speaking with the appropriate accents, tones, and expressions, whereas those in the Rockies used Mexican-Americans.

The Obama campaign was broader and more persistent than Romney’s. In 2012, 80 percent of Mexican-Americans in the key states of Colorado and Nevada reported that the Obama campaign contacted them at least once, and 50 percent had been contacted more than five times. Meanwhile, just 60 percent had been contacted at least once by the Romney campaign, and only 30 percent had heard from the Romney campaign more than five times.

In those two states, a majority of Hispanics polled after the election said that the Republican Party does not respect the values and concerns of the Hispanic community: 59 percent in Nevada, and 63 percent in Colorado. Obama trounced Romney among Hispanic voters, even in Florida, where George W. Bush won a majority of the Hispanic vote.

Part of winning the race for Hispanics might simply be making sure to show up at the gate.

Then there are the specific issues where Democrats have wooed Hispanics. One of the most important for Republicans to understand is government welfare.

Hispanics participate in welfare programs in disproportionate numbers. But, Gonzalez notes, immigrants come to this country seeking jobs, not welfare. Anyone who picks up and moves to a new country tends to be of the scrappy, independent type. So the USDA, dismayed by the fact that many Hispanics who qualified for food stamps were not using them, actually advertised food stamps in Spanish-language outlets to increase enrollment.

Gonzalez describes one soap-opera-like commercial where a Hispanic woman resists the idea of food stamps: "My husband earns enough to take care of us." "Ay, girl," her friend chides her. "When are you going to learn?" The commercial's happy ending has the first woman signing up for food stamps.

Conservatives should not view welfare dependency as an inevitable state for Hispanics. They should explain, in a compassionate way, the corrosive effects and perverse incentives of these systems of relief.

A key area where conservatives could find favor with Hispanics is education. Immigrants care deeply for their children's education. And Hispanic parents know that their children are often trapped in dangerously underperforming schools. While the children of Hispanic immigrants enter schools as attentive and eager students, Gonzalez says, they assimilate downwards, and become less engaged after exposure to American schools.

Gonzalez places a great deal of emphasis on the issue of broken families. While first-generation Hispanic immigrants arrive with an extremely strong sense of the traditional family, he says, it quickly erodes in later generations. He postulates that this contributes to poverty and poor assimilation rates into mainstream American society. He recommends sponsoring government programs that would campaign for marriage and family values.

Gonzalez is right to identify this as a serious problem. But color me skeptical that a government program will fix it. Gonzalez points to anti-smoking campaigns as evidence of how government can transform behavior, but it's far easier to scare someone with graphic images of punctured, cancerous throats than it is to scold them into practicing family values. And smoking was toppled by more than just government propaganda. If government health campaigns are enough to turn a culture against a habit, somebody should let Colorado and Washington's D.A.R.E. programs know.

Gonzalez makes a point of not addressing immigration reform. Only 12 percent of Hispanic voters said that immigration was the most important issue to them in 2012. Like most voters, Hispanic voters tend to care more about issues like healthcare and the economy. And, he says, although Republicans will have to deal with immigration reform one day, they should not allow this one issue to distract them from appealing to Hispanic voters on other issues.

A Race For The Future goes into many more issues than can be addressed in a book review. Gonzalez is to be commended for dealing honestly with the uncomfortable reality of conservative failures to appeal to Hispanics, and for attempting to overcome them.