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Bush Outreach to Hispanics; Pays Dividends for President
By John Harwood
The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Moderate Democrats are assembling in the capital Tuesday to hear some especially unsettling news: President Bush's strategy for reaching out to Hispanic voters is working.

A new poll of Hispanic voters nationwide, to be released Tuesday at a gathering of the New Democrat Network, shows that among these voters Mr. Bush has drawn even with former Vice President Al Gore in a prospective 2004 match-up. In 2000, Mr. Bush lost Hispanics to Mr. Gore by more than 20 percentage points. If the Republican incumbent can sustain his current level of support two years from now -- especially in key states such as Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado -- he will drastically steepen the odds against any Democratic challenger. See the latest WSJ/NBC News poll1

Democrats are in "great danger" because the party has failed to counter Mr. Bush's political offensive among Hispanics, says Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based pollster and veteran of national Democratic politics. "If they let him have a free pass on this, the chances of defeating him in 2004 are slim."

Republican strategists say their candidates are headed for a stronger performance among Hispanics no matter what Democrats do. One reason is that increasing affluence among some Hispanics will lead to a natural GOP drift; another is that Mr. Bush's softening of the GOP's image is bound to benefit other Republicans eventually.

Just Monday, Mr. Bush courted a segment of the Hispanic electorate during a visit to Miami to discuss U.S. policy toward Cuba2. Though the Cuban-American voters he was targeting account for only a small piece of the national Hispanic electorate, they are an important constituency in Florida for his own re-election campaign in 2004 and that of his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, this November.

But Monday's visit was only the latest chapter in the long-running effort by Mr. Bush and his political strategists to woo the fastest-growing ethnic constituency in American politics. The Hispanic share of the U.S. electorate trebled to 7% in 2000 from its 1980 level, and data from the latest census indicate Hispanics are surpassing African-Americans as the nation's largest minority group. White House strategists acknowledge that in 2004 Mr. Bush needs to build on the 35% he won in 2000. Yet he has a solid launching pad: While GOP presidential candidates have never drawn 20% of the vote among blacks since 1980, they have never fallen below 20% among Hispanics.

Mr. Bush has been making the effort for years. As Texas governor, he opposed the idea of denying government-funded benefits such as public education and health care to illegal immigrants, a move California voters endorsed with Proposition 187 eight years ago. Mr. Bush pursued Hispanic votes assiduously during his 2000 campaign for president, and he has continued outreach efforts from the White House by promoting closer ties with Mexico, among other policies.

So far, the poll shows, "They haven't missed a target yet," Mr. Bendixen says. Mr. Bush lost the Hispanic vote to Mr. Gore with 35% of the vote to Mr. Gore's 62% in November 2000, according to network exit polls. But in Mr. Bendixen's survey this month of 800 Hispanics, Mr. Bush trails by just 46% to 44% -- a deficit smaller than the survey's margin of error of three percentage points.

To be sure, Mr. Bush's ratings have risen among all voters since Sept. 11. But the survey documents the president's improved standing among Hispanics on a range of specifics. They favor him over Democrats in Congress by a whopping 49 percentage points on protecting against terrorism and by 23 percentage points on improving relations with Latin America, 16 percentage points on supporting family values and two percentage points on improving education.

Mr. Bush's popularity hasn't trickled down to GOP candidates so far, though. While the Democratic Party holds an overwhelmingly favorable image among Hispanics, these voters are more evenly divided in their assessment of Republicans. By a 53% to 23% split, Hispanics say they intend to back Democrats over Republicans for Congress. And Democrats lead Republicans, as opposed to Mr. Bush, by substantial margins on issues from health care to immigration to helping small businesses.

"Democrats still have a good name brand among Hispanics," says Rep. Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey who joined the New Democrat Network in commissioning the survey. But "The poll tells us, 'Wake up! You're being challenged."

One way for Democrats to respond is to improve their efforts to distribute their message using Spanish-language media outlets. The Bush administration has hired staffers from Hispanic television networks to help, Mr. Menendez says, with impressive results. Amid the celebration of Mexico's Cinco de Mayo holiday this month, a White House reception received extensive and sympathetic coverage on the Spanish-language Univision network.

Another striking conclusion from the survey is the emergence of a swelling group of recent Latino immigrants who are much less oriented than U.S.-born Hispanics to reliance on government benefits. These "opportunity Hispanics," who make up a 39% plurality of the Hispanic electorate, favor trade expansion and less government regulation than what Mr. Bendixen calls "government Hispanics," who make up 36% of the Latino electorate.

"We have to make the case that Democrats are the party of opportunity," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network. That imperative, he said, argues against the sort of "us vs. them" populism that marked Mr. Gore's general-election campaign two years ago.

Republicans long have argued that social issues represented a promising avenue of appeal to Hispanic voters, who are predominantly Catholic and show culturally conservative leanings on topics such as abortion. But Mr. Bendixen says Democrats needn't fear GOP inroads on that basis. The survey shows that 47% of Hispanics believe abortion should be illegal, compared with 39% who don't. But Hispanics on both sides of that issue back Democratic candidates for Congress by comparable margins, suggesting the issue doesn't significantly affect Hispanic choices at the polls.