US 2012: Hispanics, Romney’s next frontier

By J Brooks Spector 7 June 2012

In several recent articles in Daily Maverick, J BROOKS SPECTOR has looked closely at the respective Republican and Democratic candidates for the US presidency, as well as several key issues likely to be decisive in this year’s election. This article focuses on the electorate’s views as revealed in some recent polling, with special focus on the Hispanic vote and the Romney campaign’s efforts to attract it.

In a poll released in early June, the Pew Research Centre concluded that the electorate’s “values and basic beliefs are more polarised along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years. Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides.”

Though there has been much stability over nearly 50 different values measures tracked by Pew since 1987, the average gap in attitudes between Republican and Democratic Party supporters has nearly doubled from about 10% in 1987 to 18% at present. Nearly all of these increases came during the presidential terms of George W Bush and Barack Obama. (Despite this, both parties’ support bases are increasingly critical of their respective parties for not being true to their traditional positions – implying support for an even harsher split between the two parties.)

The survey shows that gaps between demographic divisions such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion and class are no wider on these values measures than in the past – and that any differences shrink in comparison to today’s party divide. As a consequence, the cores of the two parties have actually become smaller and more homogeneous ideologically – as increasing numbers of voters call themselves independent. Among Republicans, about twice as many consider themselves conservatives than moderates, whereas Democrats are split evenly between liberal and moderate wings.

However, this growing partisan divide is not just because of the shrinking number of voters who identify themselves with the two parties. The Pew research notes, “while many Americans have given up their party identification over the past 25 years and now call themselves independents, the polarization extends also to independents, most of whom lean toward a political party. Even when the definition of the party bases is extended to include these leaning independents, the values gap has about doubled between 1987 and 2012.”

All of this seems to parallel the rise in news selection among citizens as people increasingly select news sources that reinforce the views they already hold, rather than the nation as a whole drawing on a set of news sources in common – as was the case before cable TV news channels proliferated.

Of particular importance for the coming election, the sharpest divides between Obama and Romney supporters come in disagreements over the scope and role of government in the economic realm. Interestingly, swing voters – now approximately a quarter of all registered voters – express attitudes on the social safety net and immigration closer to those of Romney’s – even as they lean towards Obama supporter positions on labour unions and a number of social issues.

Interestingly, by contrast to this widening partisan gap, the Pew data neither show strong evidence of growing class differences over fundamental political values nor much growing class resentment. This latter finding seems to be in contrast to much current writing about the anger over a class gap or growing feelings of inequality – even though a majority of Americans do agree with the view that “the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.”

Nonetheless, although a growing number of Americans do agree that there is an increasing gap in living standards between the poor and middle class since the start of these surveys back in the mid-1980s, these same people saw no great, growing gap in values between the middle class and the poor.

Concurrently, the survey failed to find much support for the view that America was in decline – something that has become a near-constant refrain of commentators, columnists and some politicians. Instead, a significant majority still agrees that “as Americans we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want” – a view consistent with traditional American optimism and exceptionalism. The inference to be drawn from this, say the survey’s authors, is that Americans’ faith in the country remains strong even as it has become less confident about the chances of an economic turnaround.

Writing about this survey shortly after it was made public, New York Times columnist Charles Blow argues it offers important “insights into how racially divergent values and the changing racial compositions of political parties influence our politics”. Blow notes that though the percentage of Republicans who are white has remained roughly stable since the beginning of the 21st century at around 87%, the percentage of Democrats who are white has fallen from 64% to 55%. Extrapolating from current trends, the Democratic Party will be a majority minority party (including Asian-American, Hispanic, African-American and people of mixed racial heritage).

This pattern would follow the broader national pattern noted in recent Census Bureau data and might even be read as a prediction for an obituary over the long term for the Republican Party as it becomes less and less like the rest of the nation racially and older and older with fewer replacement members – unless if figures out how to corral some new ethnicities into its grasp. We’ll come to that in a moment.

As Blow interprets these trends, the growing racial diversity among Democrats and the comparative lack of it among Republicans points to the two parties’ bases bringing increasingly divergent concerns to the national debate as to what is fundamental or relatively less important. Such issues include the question of whether personal effort or a skewed playing field is a key cause of poverty and whether government should provide a bare minimum to the poor in terms of basic food and shelter.

According to the data, about 78% of blacks and Hispanics believe this is a government role – while just over half of whites concurred. Nonetheless, the data also shows all groups substantially agree poor people are too dependent on government assistance. Concurrently, significant majorities of Hispanics and blacks support preferential treatment to improve the position of minorities, while just 22% of whites generally – and just 12% of Republicans – agreed.

Given all these various ideological pulls and tugs, what lessons can be drawn for this year’s election? At this point in the election cycle, about 90% of all Romney supporters are white, under 5% are Hispanic, about 1% are black and about 4% are other races. The distribution for Obama supporters is about half white, 23% black, 12% Hispanic and the remainder being from other races. Among independents, about three-quarters are white with the rest distributed among other races.

Blow argues that this may well explain how Pew found swing voters lean more towards Obama voters on issues like civil liberties and the role of labour unions, but towards Romney voters on the role of social safety nets, immigration and minority-preference programmes. Put bluntly, both Romney’s supporters and swing voters – both groups being primarily white – agree on more racially charged issues but behave more like Obama supporters when it comes to broader economic perspectives.

The Romney campaign, meanwhile, has clearly taken serious cognisance of such data. Given its current low level of support among Hispanic voters – and the fact that those very voters may well hold the margin of victory in swing states like Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado and even Iowa – the Romney campaign has been banging away at Hispanic audiences on those broad economic values to entice Hispanic support without dampening enthusiasm among his current constituency.

In the past few days, for example, it has deployed key Latino surrogate campaigners like Cuban-American Florida senator Marco Rubio and Florida congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to make this precise pitch to putatively sympathetic audiences. Over the past several days, Rubio has been arguing, “President Obama’s failed policies of new regulations, higher taxes, and Obamacare and his anti-business rhetoric have hit Hispanics especially hard. Big government really hurts those who are trying to make it.”

Meanwhile, Ros-Lehtinen has been insisting, “from higher unemployment to higher levels of child poverty, and everything in between, Hispanics have been hit particularly hard by President Obama’s failure to turn the economy around”.
Romney has been making the same case. In an appearance recently in Fort Worth, Texas, for example, before a predominately Hispanic audience, he said that when he becomes president, he would “make sure this economy is good for all Americans, Hispanics and otherwise” in contrast to an Obama economy that has been “particularly hard on Hispanic businesses and Hispanic Americans…. Did you know that the rate of unemployment among Hispanic Americans rose last month to 11%? And that the people in this country that are poor, living in poverty, one out of three are Hispanic American?… And among young Hispanic Americans the poverty rate is 30%?” Romney added to this tailored message by insisting that Hispanic businesses have had trouble in the anti-small business environment of the Obama years. They have also been issuing Spanish-language ads on the web citing similar statistics.

All of this is in response to the ongoing support gap between Obama and Romney with Hispanics. The May NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll shows Obama leading Romney 61% to 27% among Latinos. Moreover, 35% of such voters have negative views of Romney, compared to just 23% towards Obama.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has launched its own television ads targeting Latino voters in Colorado, Nevada and Florida. These ads have highlighted his administration’s earlier stimulus package, the auto bailout and the healthcare law – in part due to polls consistent with the Pew data that show those policies are still popular with Hispanic Americans.

Given the closeness of this year’s election, it will be fought interest group by interest group, ethnic group by ethnic group. Every bit of data that can be massaged to highlight any marginal benefits that can come from tailoring a message to meet the precise sets of attitudes held by the different slices of the electorate will be crucial. As a result, data such as that in the Pew surveys will be mined to guide the way the candidates position themselves to the electorate. Watch for rapid-response, precise adjustments to position papers, stump speeches, and advertising on TV, radio and the internet – whenever polling indicates shifts in attitudes on the part of the electorate.

One irony in this tightly focused attention to the Hispanic voter is that these very voters do not necessarily see themselves as a distinctive interest group bloc. According to another recent Pew report, “Only about one-quarter (24%) of Hispanic adults say they most often identify themselves by ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’…. About half (51%) say they identify themselves most often by their family’s country or place of origin – using such terms as Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran or Dominican. And 21% say they use the term ‘American’ most often to describe themselves. The share rises to 40% among those who were born in the US” – even though most see themselves unified by virtue of language. Accordingly, watch for precisely targeted campaign material keying in on the separate hyphenated Spanish speakers in this election.

As the campaign intensifies, analysts will have to track how the Obama and Romney campaigns tailor their messages differentially to Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Puerto Rican-Americans –as they aim for voting edges in swing states where one or another Hispanic subgroup predominates. If the election was likely to be a blow-out, there would be less bother about this – but in an election as tight as this one will be, efforts like this may make the difference between going home to Chicago or New England. DM

Read more:

  • Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years; Trends in American Values: 1987-2012 at the Pew Center
  • Romney Keeps Up Hispanic Push at Time
  • Romney courts Latino voters in Texas in the Washington Post
  • Poll: Hispanic voters overwhelmingly support Obama at the
  • Mitt Romney makes direct appeal to Hispanic voters in Texas at ABC News
  • Not Afraid to Talk About Race, a column by Charles Blow in the New York Times
  • When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity, Pew Hispanic Center

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney (L) greets a group of men who participated during a Hispanic roundtable meeting in Tempe, Arizona April 20, 2012. (REUTERS/Joshua Lott)


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