You'd never know it by listening to the GOP presidential hopefuls, but the Republican Party is launching a major effort to woo Hispanic voters in next year's election. The reason is simple: demographics. Unless the GOP wins a larger percentage of Hispanic votes in key states next year than it did in 2008, the White House may be out of reach, despite President Obama's unpopularity.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that new census numbers show a surge in the Hispanic voting-age population between 2008 and 2010. In Florida, with its 29 electoral votes at stake, the Hispanic voting-age population increased by nearly 250,000, whereas the comparable white population grew by barely 30,000.
And Florida isn't alone. In both Nevada and New Mexico, the population of Hispanics age 18 and over grew at twice the rate of white adults. President Obama carried those states last time around, and if he does so in 2012, the electoral map makes a Republican victory look dicey.
Of course, raw age numbers don't equate to voting numbers, especially among Hispanics, who are far more likely to be non-citizens. Nonetheless, Republicans would be foolish to ignore the fastest growing demographic in the country. So conservative groups have started airing ads in key states aimed directly at Hispanic voters.
The first radio ad to air, which was put out by American Crossroads in July, according to The Wall Street Journal, included this message from an Hispanic female: "I supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully, but since then, things have gone from bad to much worse." The ad hopes to capitalize on Hispanic dissatisfaction over Obama's jobs record. Hispanic unemployment stands at over 11 percent, and a new report released by the Census Bureau this weeks shows that Hispanics now comprise the largest group of children living in poverty in the U.S. -- some 6.1 million.
But ads won't be enough to woo Hispanics. And in a ham-fisted approach, the Republican National Committee, as well as private GOP-leaning groups, seem to think that airing ads in Spanish is the best way to attract Hispanic voters. Studies have consistently shown that Hispanics who vote get their news and information in English, not Spanish. Just like Spanish-language ballots, it's a waste of money, because virtually all voters speak English.
Jobs will certainly be the number-one issue for Hispanic voters next November, as it will be for all Americans. But how candidates speak about immigration influences Hispanic voters' perception of whether they are welcome in the GOP. And most of the candidates have still not managed to learn how to talk about this emotional issue in a way that demonstrates their commitment to a secure border but doesn't end up alienating potential Hispanic voters.
Instead of intoning, "I would build a fence on America's southern border -- on every mile, on every yard, on every foot, on every inch of the southern border," as Michelle Bachmann did last week, they ought to try listening to Ronald Reagan on the issue.
In 1980, when Reagan was running for the GOP nomination against Texan George H. W. Bush, he had this to say: "Rather than talking about putting up a fence ... why don't we make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit? And then, while they are working and earning, they can pay taxes here."
The illegal immigration issue is easy to solve -- and at far less cost than building a nearly 2,000-mile fence along our southern border. Create a legal way for workers willing to do jobs that Americans shun -- even during periods of high unemployment -- and you will eliminate about 90 percent of illegal immigration. And those new, legal workers will pay taxes, buy American services and products, rent and buy homes that now sit vacant, and bolster the economies of communities that are now suffering.
Now if one of the GOP Reagan-wannabes up on the stage during the next debate would sound a little more like the Gipper, he or she might stand a chance of winning 40 percent or more of the Hispanic vote -- and the presidency -- in 2012. It worked for Reagan.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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