October 6, 2000
By Ken Herman
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The music was loud and Latino. The message was custom-made for the crowd packed into Miami's Coconut Grove Convention Center for a Republican rally.
"We Hispanics have become the most important electoral bloc in the country," said George P. Bush, the Mexican-American nephew of the Republican presidential nominee.
But George P. is overstating the case in the current presidential race.
After months of speculation about the Latino impact on the race for the White House, the final 1 1/2 months of the battle will be played out in states, mostly in the Midwest, where the Hispanic vote will be minuscule.
"It's a demographic reality," said Rodolfo de la Garza, a University of Texas government professor and vice president of research for the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.
Except for New Mexico, which has five electoral votes, and Florida, which has 25 electoral votes and an atypical Hispanic community, the battleground states are among those with the lowest percentage of voting-age Latinos.
Seventy-five percent of the nation's growing Latino population is clustered in five states: California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois. Of those states, only Illinois offers anything close to the dynamic once viewed as a crucial factor in the election: the ability of Republican George W. Bush to move traditionally Democratic Latinos into his column.
Polls show California, New York and Texas are not in play as the campaign moves into its most critical phase.
Democrat Al Gore has a solid lead in New York, and Bush probably will carry his home state. Although Bush is battling for California, where the voting-age population is 28 percent Latino, surveys indicate he is a long shot at best.
The race is much closer in Florida, where Bush is counting on his brother Jeb, Florida's governor, to help deliver the state. Florida's voting-age population is 15 percent Latino, but it is atypical because of a large Cuban-American population with long-standing ties to the Republican Party and the Bush family.
Matthew Dowd, who studies poll numbers for the Bush campaign, notes that demographic changes in Florida's Latino community have made it more difficult for a Republican to carry that state: Non-Cuban Latinos now outnumber Cuban Hispanics.
Nationwide, people with Cuban backgrounds make up 5 percent of the nation's 32 million Latinos, but they vote Republican. A recent national poll by Hispanictrends.com, which gave Gore a 59-28 percent overall lead among Latinos, showed Bush with a whopping 83-10 percent lead among Cuban-Americans.
Gore, however, has huge leads among people of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Central American and South American descent.
But the Bush campaign maintains it will continue to try to lure Latino votes to show Bush is a different kind of Republican.
Dan Fee, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said Latinos are becoming more important in state politics, but can make a difference this year only if the presidential race in Pennsylvania is razor thin.
De la Garza, the professor who follows Latino voting trends, says that's generally the case in the battleground states.
"You've got to have a very, very tight election for small groups to influence them," he said. "The Anglos would have to be divided 49.8-49.8. If the majority population is going in one direction overwhelmingly, Latinos don't make much of a difference. It's only when the majority is divided can Latinos realistically hope to influence the outcome."
But de la Garza believes Latinos, through Bush's message, already have affected the presidential race.
"Issues of cultural division were killed off when Bush reached out to Latinos," he said.
The "different kind of a Republican" tag Bush has hung on himself has been a crucial part of his campaign since Day One. Depending on whose numbers you believe, Bush carried one-third to one-half of the Latino vote in Texas in his 1998 gubernatorial re-election campaign.
Bush has continued that effort in the presidential race, speaking Spanish on the campaign trail, airing Spanish-language advertisements and distancing himself from GOP immigration positions unpopular among Latinos.
But the appeal to Latinos may not be numerically crucial in the campaign's closing weeks. Bush and Gore are concentrating their time and resources on 10 battleground states, with 134 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. The Latino voting-age population in those states is less than 3 percent.
At the other end of the battleground spectrum are New Mexico, which, at 38 percent, has the highest proportion of voting-age Hispanics, Arizona (19 percent) and Florida (15 percent). Those states offer 38 electoral votes.
A Reuters/Zogby national poll completed last week gave Gore a 57-25 percent edge among Latinos. In 1992, President Bush captured 19 percent of the Latino vote when he was ousted by Democrat Bill Clinton. In 1996, GOP nominee Bob Dole pulled 13 percent of the Latino vote.