LOS ANGELES — Republicans are campaigning intensely to win their party’s nomination for president. But there is a rapidly growing group that they are almost completely ignoring: Latinos.
With dozens of primaries around the corner, the Latino vote has not been in focus for any of the campaigns. That is, except for visits to Miami’s Little Havana and courting some Hispanics in Florida.
It makes sense for them to worry about Florida’s Latino vote, in particular the Cuban vote, which is mainly conservative, because this is the first large state to hold a primary: After Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Florida will hold its primary on Jan. 31.
However, David Johnson, a Republican campaign consultant who managed Bob Dole’s presidential strategy in 1996, thinks this year the “Nixon strategy” may not be as effective as in the past.
“[Richard] Nixon popularized a strategy of moving toward the right during primaries and toward the center in the general election,” said Johnson. “It worked for Nixon to win in the 1970s, but we’re facing a different dynamic, where you not only cater to moderate voters but to a group that is crucial for the party’s future: Latinos.”
Once they emerge from the primaries and select a candidate, Republicans will have to go beyond their conservative base and seek a percentage of the independent vote, and in key states, moderate Latinos will be critical for them.
Johnson thinks Republicans would have an opportunity to draw Latinos “who are disappointed with Obama and have been affected by the economic situation. They should use the economy and support of legal immigration, they should do what [Ronald] Reagan did and what George W. Bush did, ask for their vote.”
For now, however, Latinos are such a small part of the Republican vote itself, that few are thinking about what will happen during the general election.
“We’re a very small segment of the Republican primary vote. We must remember those who vote in the primaries are the most faithful party members, the group of fans. In this group, we estimate that Latinos are only 5 or 6%,” said Gabriel Sánchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico and advisor for the polling organization Latino Decisions.
None of the main Republican candidates has a “Latino campaign,” or Hispanic spokespersons, or even a website in Spanish.
At this point in the 2008 campaign, Mitt Romney, who now seems like the most organized and best prepared Republican candidate, had a strong Latino campaign in English and Spanish.
Not so this time around. Calls to Romney’s campaign to discuss his Hispanic strategy went unanswered.
“I think what they’re calculating is that if they court the Latino vote in general, including the non-Cuban community, which is the majority, they would have to take positions that would alienate conservative white voters,” said Sánchez.
Republican advisors may also remember that in 2008, during the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama basically ignored the Latino vote and lost that vote to Hillary Clinton in states such as Texas and California. “Republicans perhaps think they can do what Obama did and recover later, even after paying no attention to Latinos,” added Sánchez.
But perhaps it won’t be so easy to go to East Los Angeles to eat tacos, like George H.W. Bush did, or to a Texan neighborhood to kiss brown babies like George W. Bush, if the candidate talked about “an electrified fence” on the border or refuses to seek solutions to the immigration status of millions of undocumented immigrants.
“I think the Republicans are digging a pretty deep hole when they alienate Latinos. The great irony is that one of them, Texas Governor Ricky Perry, was castigated for, among others, defending education for the undocumented in Texas,” said Jason Casellas, a professor of government at the University of Texas.
Even though Latinos are not extremely thrilled with President Obama’s performance (recent polls have shown slightly over 40% are sure they will vote for the president), “Republicans aren’t doing anything to obtain this vote… on the contrary.”
In October, there was an announcement that at least six Republican candidates refused to participate in a debate being organized by the Univision network, to protest a problem the network had with Florida Senator Marcos Rubio, who has refused to appear in Univision’s shows since he was elected in 2010.