By Samantha Wyatt
The GOP has been hard hit with a painful but unsurprising reality in the wake of the November 6th election: Latinos have all but abandoned their party. This year, Hispanics made up 10% of the electorate, up from 9% in 2008. And Governor Romney was able to gain only 27% of their vote, far short of the 38% he had hoped for.
To put it simply, the GOP has a “Latino problem.” Latinos—like other minorities, women, and the LGBT community—can no longer identify with a party that fails to prioritize their needs. Governor Romney never once denied his support of self-deportation, and repeatedly took an extreme right stance on immigration both during the primaries and his campaign.
Surprisingly, the GOP’s Latino problem is somewhat new. During the second presidential debate, President Obama compared Governor Romney’s right-wing immigration stance with the relatively progressive views of George W. Bush, pointing out an interesting and unfortunate reversal of GOP rhetoric. “There are some things where Governor Romney is different from George Bush,” the president said. “George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation.”
Beginning in 2005, the Republican Party renounced its previously moderate approach to Latino issues, taking a more extreme, anti-immigrant stance. Despite his recent attempts to appease Hispanic voters, Romney never distanced himself from his party’s new, extremist position on immigration.
George W. Bush showed notable sagacity in his initial recognition of the importance of the Hispanic vote, which proved integral to his reelection. Starting in 2000, Bush successfully reached out to Hispanic voters with targeted media campaigns.
Prior to the 2000 election, Bush’s Chief Pollster Matthew Dowd emphasized the importance of appealing to Latino voters, saying, “We can’t survive as a party without getting more of the Hispanic vote.” To this end, the 2000 Bush campaign spent $2,274,000 on Spanish-language TV ads, compared to only $960,000 spent by Democratic candidate Al Gore. Pablo Izquierdo, the account supervisor of the media firm responsible for Gore’s Spanish language ads, attributed Gore’s failure to reach Latino voters as “the key losing factor” in his presidential bid.
Bush also recognized the importance of comprehensive immigration reform that would extend rights to a growing sector of the American population living without documentation. He staunchly supported a bill that included a plan to legalize an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants and create a temporary worker program sought by business groups. Unfortunately, Bush was unable to overcome his party’s own resistance to immigration reform, and Republicans dealt the bill a fatal blow in a 2007 Senate vote.
“A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn’t find common ground. It didn’t work,” said Bush.
By 2007, common ground on immigration issues was already hard to come by, thanks to the GOP’s growing opposition to immigration reform. As early as 2005, Republicans began to adopt anti-immigrant rhetoric with their overwhelming support of the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act, which would have criminalized providing services to undocumented immigrants, increased barriers to naturalization for lawful permanent residents, and expanded the number of detainees held indefinitely. Although the act passed in the House, it prompted widespread protests and ultimately did not pass the Senate.
In 2005, GOP House leader John Boehner assumed the mantle of immigration opposition, refusing to take up the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill that passed a Republican-controlled Senate. In both 2007 and 2010, Republicans were integral in defeating the DREAM Act, with over 70% against the bill in both votes.
Although the Romney campaign invested a great deal in TV ads, Governor Romney again differed from George W. Bush by spending a relative pittance on Spanish-language TV ads. The Obama campaign, together with the DNC and supporting groups, spent nearly twelve times as much on Spanish-language TV ads than their Romney counterpart.
To their credit, the GOP immediately realized the gravity of Latinos’ stark Nov. 6 referendum. “The big issue Republicans are going to have to wrestle with is the Hispanic issue,” said Republican strategist Ari Fleischer, who served as President George W. Bush’s first press secretary. Republican strategist Ana Navarro put it more bluntly: “If we don’t do better with Hispanics, we’ll be out of the White House forever.”
As they attempt to find a new path forward, Republicans would be wise to reflect upon a past unfettered by extremist Tea Party ideology. There, even a conservative and flawed president recognized the importance of the growing Latino population with an open mind and sensible, fair policies.