It’s a familiar “meme” these days: Republicans are so opposed to immigration reform and so tolerant of nativists and racists in their midst that they have permanently alienated minority voters. Gone are the days when a GOP presidential candidate could capture 44% of the Latino vote, as George W. Bush did in 2004, many Democratic pundits say.
But, in fact, that’s not what the latest polls show. Sure, Latinos are not enamored of the Republicans as a national party, but that doesn’t mean they won’t vote for GOP candidates – as long as those candidates embrace immigration reform and other Latino-friendly policies – and many are prepared to just that.
Consider a little-noticed poll conducted Last July by the progressive polling firm Latino Decisions. It surveyed 1,200 Latino voters nationwide about their opinions of several possible GOP presidential candidates, including Florida senator Marco Rubio and former GOP VP candidate Paul Ryan, both of whom have voiced support for a sweeping legalization plan. More than 44% of the Latinos polled said they would support either man.
In fact, a whopping 54% of the Latinos polled said that they would back Rubio. Another 47% said that they would vote for George W. Bush’s older brother, Jeb. Republicans have never come close to achieving these percentages in a national election.
Now there’s a second Latino poll, conducted in the heat of the New Jersey governor’s race, which sheds further light on this trend. Incumbent Republican Chris Christie, an unrepentant deficit-cutter and declared foe of the state’s teachers’ unions, has enjoyed a huge lead over his Democratic challenger Barbara Buono and is now expected to win re-election easily. But what’s shocking is that Christie and Buono are also running neck and neck among Latinos, at roughly 40% each, with 16% of New Jersey voters still undecided. (A new poll by Monmouth actually shows Christie leading Buono among Latinos 50-44.)
There are several explanations for Christie’s success. First, despite his reputation as a fierce Obama critic and Tea Party sympathizer, Christie has largely governed from the center right. In fact, unlike the Tea party, he has long backed a bipartisan solution to immigration reform and has publicly criticized Arizona’s notorious crackdown law SB1070, which the US Supreme Court largely struck down last year.
Christie has also adopted Latino-friendly positions on education and small business while appointing Hispanics to top state posts, including an open seat on the New Jersey Supreme Court. In return, he’s received the endorsement of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the National Coalition of Latino Officers, and most critically, perhaps, the New Jersey Latino Leadership Alliance (LLANJ), a group that backed his Democratic opponent, John Corzine, during his first gubernatorial bid in 2009.
And then there’s Christie’s huge money advantage over his challenger — about 10-1 overall. That’s allowed Christie, for the first time in his political career, to run a spate of Spanish-language television ads, while his opponent been slow to develop a Latino ad campaign of her own, having thus far largely taken the Hispanic vote for granted, it seems.
Christie is expected to flood the airwaves with TV ads after the two candidates debate for the second time in mid-October. His first Spanish ad, “Orgullo de Nueva Jersey,” has run widely – first in the primary, and now in the general election — while Buono has relied almost exclusively on social media to reach Latinos. That may have helped her with youth, but many Hispanics, especially older voters, still don’t rely heavily on the Internet.
How relevant is Christie’s success in New Jersey to the national scene? It’s worth noting that New Jersey Latinos don’t reflect the national composition of the Latino vote, which is predominantly Mexican-American. The state has a large numbers of assimilated Puerto Ricans and Cuban-Americans (about 50% of the total combined) who might be more expected to tilt Christie’s way, in part, because neither group is immigrant (Puerto Ricans are US citizens by law, and Cubans has special refugee status). In addition, Christie has clearly gained from a brilliant strategic maneuver: warmly embracing President Obama after Hurricane Sandy. That move bolstered his bipartisan credentials in the minds of many voters, including Latinos who still strongly back the President.
Still, should Christie win big in November, with more than 40% of the Hispanic vote (and possibly as much as a third of the Black vote, another huge surprise), pundits and politicians in both parties will be forced to recalibrate their thinking about the GOP and Latinos. There’s even an good chance that Christie could win the Latino vote outright, something a GOP gubernatorial candidate hasn’t accomplished in three decades. If Christie pulls that feat off, it could be a whole new ball game for Republicans in their quest to regain the allegiance of America’s largest and fastest growing ethnic group – with Christie himself as the presumptive party standard-bearer – over the Tea Party’s dead body, perhaps — in 2016.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org