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Presidential Race

Who Will Win Over America's Latino Voters?

Originally published on Wed March 14, 2012 12:37 pm

There's a man in Phoenix with a political playbook that has become valuable. So valuable, the Obama campaign believes it could help clinch the president's re-election.

Phoenix City Council Member Daniel Valenzuela is a fourth-generation Mexican-American. Last year, he won a seat on the Phoenix City Council in a traditionally Republican district, and he did it by increasing Latino voter turnout by 488 percent.

"I decided early on that this campaign would be a campaign for social behavioral change," Valenzuela tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "To get people active, register to vote, realize the power of a vote and to get them to cast that vote."

Latino voters continue to shape American politics, and this election season should see candidates on both sides courting the support of the fast-growing group. In Valenzuela's case, he did it the old-fashioned way. He recruited a group of local university students who knocked on 72,000 doors.

Mobilizing For Issues

One of Valenzuela's student volunteers was Vania Guevara, a first-generation American whose parents are from El Salvador.

Guevara says that the student volunteers were able to tap into the frustration many folks in the community felt over Arizona's tough anti-immigration laws.

"A lot of it was SB 1070 [anti-illegal immigration act] and what [Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio] was doing in our communities that really triggered it," Guevara tells Raz. "Also, tuition increases, and a lot of our DREAM Act students basically got kicked out of school because of a proposition that increased tuition significantly."

Critics say Arizona's new immigration law encourages profiling. Republican Sheriff Arpaio's office was cited by the Justice Department for "pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos." And the DREAM Act, which proposes paths to citizenship for some children of immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally, is largely opposed by Republican lawmakers.

The issues Guevara mentions — among others — mobilized so many people in western Phoenix that it eventually inspired a recent Time magazine cover story.

"In the end, we witnessed the greatest grass-roots effort in the history of Phoenix politics," Valenzuela says.

The success prompted the Obama campaign to send an operative to Phoenix to learn more about Valenzeula's game plan and how to apply it nationwide; Valenzuela says he believes Arizona is in play this election.

"The Latino voter turnout increased by nearly 500 percent in one particular district," he says, "but over the city of Phoenix, which is the sixth-largest city in the country, mind you, it actually increased by over 300 percent across the board."

Latinos like the ones who voted in Phoenix — people who had never voted before — could turn out across the country in such numbers this year that they might hold the power to swing the presidential election.

The way things are looking now, that's bad news for Republicans.

"When I hear some of the policies and the rhetoric that's coming out of the GOP debates, I hear very little other than anti-immigration reform," Valenzuela says. "And those things bother me, personally, and I know that I'm not alone."

Latino Voters And Republicans

This past week, Fox News published a poll showing Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich winning just 14 percent of the Latino vote in an individual race against President Obama.

More than half of U.S. population growth today is being fueled by the Latino community. The reason this is so important to presidential politics is because of where that population growth is happening. In addition to Arizona, states that have often voted Republican like Florida, Virginia and Colorado, have all seen growth in their Latino populations. But demographer Ruy Teixeira with the Center for American Progress says that could soon swing the other way.

"If President Obama polls 75 percent of the minority vote, he can lose white voters by huge margins and still win the election, including white working-class voters," Teixeira says.

Teixeira says that if Obama can get the margin that he got in 2008 from Latino voters, he would get that 75 percent of the minority vote. While that that doesn't exactly make Obama bulletproof, Teixeris says, it certainly gets him a long way toward being re-elected.

The long, competitive Republican primary is part of the reason more Latinos are turning away from the GOP, Teixeira says. He says Latino voters have taken notice of what's been said at the GOP debates on issues important to them.

"They're all against the DREAM Act; they're all against in-state tuition ... believe me, people notice and especially Latino voters notice," he says. "It just reinforces this image of the Republican Party as being unwelcoming to immigrants."

What Can Republicans Do?

The same Fox News poll found that 60 percent of likely Latino voters believe the Democrats will help them achieve the American dream, while only 10 percent said the same for Republicans.

Whit Ayres, the founder and president of North Star Opinion Research, a national public opinion research firm, is a Republican consultant who counts many of the party's leaders as clients. He agrees that doing better among Latino voters is one of the great challenges for Republicans, but he thinks the party can do far better than the poll suggests.

"In his re-election campaign in 2004, President Bush received 44 percent of the Latino vote nationwide," Ayres says. "So we know that a candidate who reaches out and aggressively courts Latino voters can bring them into the Republican fold."

Ayres says the state of economy and jobs is the most important issue in the Latino community today, and he believes focusing on those issues can draw in Latino voters.

"To present a picture of the Republican nominee as better for economic growth will mean that Republicans will do better in Latino communities," he says.

Ayres says Latino voters are on track to become the No. 1 swing voter group in the country, and the seriousness of winning that vote for the GOP cannot be understated. What are the consequences for not taking it seriously?

"We'll lose," he says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

DANIEL VALENZUELA: All right. Enough of the snappy music. NPR, I've got one of your guests in the studio. Are you there?

RAZ: There's a man in Phoenix with a political playbook that's become very valuable. It's so valuable, in fact, that the Obama campaign believes it could help clinch the president's re-election. He's a Phoenix City councilman, and his name is Daniel Valenzuela. Daniel, what were you doing before you were elected to city council?

VALENZUELA: I'm a valley firefighter here in a neighboring city. That's Glendale, Arizona. And I'm currently still a firefighter with the Glendale Fire Department.

RAZ: And I'm not trying to embarrass you, but you actually do not speak Spanish, right?

VALENZUELA: Well, you're not trying to embarrass. No, I'm not fluent.

RAZ: Daniel Valenzuela is a fourth-generation Mexican-American, a political independent, and just to clarify, he's working on his Spanish. Anyway, last year, he won a seat on the Phoenix City Council in a traditionally Republican district, and he did it by increasing Latino voter turnout by 488 percent.

VALENZUELA: I decided early on that this campaign would be a campaign for a social behavioral change to get people active, registered to vote, realize the power of a vote and to get them to cast that vote.

RAZ: Our cover story today: How Latino voters will shape American politics from now on. And in Daniel Valenzuela's case, he did it the old-fashioned way. He recruited a group of local university students who knocked on 72,000 doors, occasionally in the punishing Arizona heat. And one of those student volunteers was Vania Guevara. Vania. Hello, Vania.

VANIA GUEVARA: Hi.

RAZ: Tell us about yourself.

GUEVARA: Well, I'm Vania Guevara...

RAZ: She's a first-generation American. Her parents are from El Salvador. And Guevara explains that the student volunteers were able to tap into the frustration many folks in the community felt over Arizona's tough anti-immigration laws.

GUEVARA: And I think that's exactly what triggered - a lot of it was SB 1070 and what Arpaio is doing in our communities. Also, tuition increases - and a lot of our DREAM Act students basically got kicked out of school because of a proposition that increased tuition significantly, and so it was for a lot of reasons.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: OK. If you didn't catch that, Vania Guevara mentioned three issues. SB 1070, that's Arizona's tough new immigration law that critics say encourages racial profiling. She also mentioned Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He's a Republican. And the Justice Department here in Washington cited his office for, quote, "a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos." And the DREAM Act? That's a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented college students or members of the military, and it's largely opposed by Republican lawmakers.

Now, those issues, among others, mobilized so many people in western Phoenix that it eventually inspired a recent Time magazine cover, photos of Latinos and two words: Yo Decido. I Decide. And as I mentioned, Valenzuela's team managed to increase Latino turnout in that one district in Phoenix by nearly 500 percent.

VALENZUELA: We witnessed the greatest grassroots effort in the history of Phoenix politics.

RAZ: It was so successful, the Obama campaign sent an operative to Phoenix to learn more about Valenzuela's game plan and how to apply it nationwide.

VALENZUELA: I absolutely believe that Arizona is in play. The Latino voting turnout increased by nearly 500 percent in one particular district. But over the city of Phoenix, which is the sixth largest city in the country, mind you, it actually increased by 300 percent across the board.

RAZ: And here's the thing: Latinos, like the ones who voted in Phoenix, people who had never voted before could turn out across the country in such numbers this year that they might hold the power to swing the presidential election. And the way things are looking now, that's bad news for Republicans.

VALENZUELA: When I hear some of the policies and the rhetoric that's coming out of the GOP debates, I hear very little other than anti-immigration reform...

MITT ROMNEY: Well, the answer is self-deportation, which is...

HERMAN CAIN: We need to secure the border with technology and guns.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: To learn the speak the English language, learn American history and our Constitution. That's the American way.

RICK SANTORUM: And if you want to be an American, the first thing you should do is respect our laws and obey our laws. And...

VALENZUELA: Those things bother me, personally, and I know that I'm not alone.

RAZ: Back in 2004, George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote. One of his supporters was DeeDee Garcia Blase. She founded a group for Latino Republicans called Somos Republicans. DeeDee is an Air Force veteran. She's a fifth-generation Mexican-American and a lifelong Republican. But last year...

DEEDEE GARCIA BLASE: I started to see the Republican Party marginalize Hispanics. Basically, they just wanted them to keep a lid on the immigration issue.

RAZ: And so she did something drastic. She abandoned the GOP and Somos Republicans. And she now expects to vote for President Obama in the fall, even though this is what she believes in. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: DeeDee Garcia Blase is undecided about who she will vote for in the presidential election.]

GARCIA BLASE: Strong national defense, capitalism, free market thinking, less taxes and the pro-life issue.

RAZ: This past week, Fox News published a poll showing Mitt Romney winning just 14 percent of the Latino vote in a race against President Obama. Now, today, more than half of U.S. population growth is being fueled by the Latino community. The reason this is so important to presidential politics, because of where that population growth is happening. It's happening in states like Arizona, as we mentioned, but also Florida, Virginia and Colorado. These are states that have often voted Republican, but places, says demographer Ruy Teixeira, that could soon swing the other way.

RUY TEIXEIRA: If President Obama polls 75 percent of the minority vote, he can lose white voters by huge margins and still win the election, including white working-class voters. I mean, you assume he's got not exactly locked down but pretty steady for the African-American vote, but Hispanics can be a more volatile constituency. But if Obama can get the margin that he got in 2008 from these voters, he's going to get 75 percent of the minority vote, he may get 80 percent of the minority vote again, which is what he got in 2008. And that doesn't exactly make him bulletproof, but it certainly gets him a long way toward getting re-elected.

RAZ: Ruy Teixeira calls North Carolina, Virginia and Florida the new South swing states, places where the Latino population has exploded in the past decade. We sent producers Shannon Novak, Sam Greenspan and Greg Collard to a strip mall in Charlotte, North Carolina...

SAM GREENSPAN, BYLINE: And so what's your name, age, and where are you from?

RAZ: ...to a supermarket in Falls Church, Virginia...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I've got to go to the store...

GREENSPAN: I can walk with you, if you'd like.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: ...and to the busy streets of South Florida...

SHANNON NOVAK, BYLINE: Here we are in beautiful downtown Miami.

RAZ: ...to speak to Latino voters with roots in many different countries.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I am from Argentina.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Columbia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Cuba.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: El Salvador.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: And I'm from Dominican Republic.

GREENSPAN: And what are the issues that are important to you this election?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: In this election? Economy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Probably the job for everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: The economy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Very important to me, that's for immigration.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Immigration.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Better help on education.

GREG COLLARD, BYLINE: You have student debt?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: A lot.

COLLARD: How much?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: I would say about 60,000.

NOVAK: What do you think when you look at this presidential election?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: I don't like the candidates. I'd rather stay with the one we have.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: The Republicans, I don't like nobody.

NOVAK: Do you know who you're going to vote for?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Well, for me, I vote for Obama again.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: And Barack Obama? No, thank you. Not anymore. He don't make nothing. Only promise, promise, promise, and I don't know when.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #13: (Through translator) They fool us, Latinos, with promises and then nothing. Nothing ever becomes a reality. So now, we no longer trust politicians because, honestly, they never keep their promises.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: (Through translator) Obama, because I think that he has helped us a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: I like Obama. He have a good idea, but the Republican don't let him do nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #14: Obama has been good for the Latino people, and he could provide a program so this ten or twelve million Latino become citizens.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: (Through translator) I know that Obama wants to help, but the Republicans don't let him because of racism. They don't let him and I know that he wants to help.

RAZ: Voices from Charlotte, North Carolina, Falls Church, Virginia, and Miami. Political demographer Ruy Teixeira, who we heard from earlier, says the long competitive Republican primary is part of the reason more Latinos are turning away from the GOP. That race continues this week with primaries in Alabama, which recently passed a tough anti-immigration law of its own, and also in Mississippi, where the governor has endorsed a similar immigration crackdown.

TEIXEIRA: Yeah. Latino voters are listening to this very closely. We've had this spectacle during the Republican primaries of the candidates essentially trying to outdo one another in the hard line they take on immigration, how much they're against it.

RAZ: With the exception of Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, who have taken a somewhat more moderate line?

TEIXEIRA: Well, Newt slightly said something that might have been interpreted as a little more liberal, but he quickly had to backtrack. And that's been the story of these primaries. The moment anyone shows the slightest degree of softness, the others pile on. You know, they're all against the DREAM Act, they're all against in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.

RAZ: Mitt Romney says he would veto the DREAM Act if it was passed.

TEIXEIRA: Absolutely. He's been very clear about it. That's a 90 percent issue with Latinos. So, believe me, people notice and especially Latino voters notice, and it just reinforces this image of the Republican Party as being unwelcoming to immigrants. Not the party for Hispanic voters.

RAZ: Ruy, George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004. In your estimate, how much of the Latino vote does the Republican, eventual Republican nominee, have to win to have a chance at defeating President Obama?

TEIXEIRA: So if they can get 40 percent again, at least puts him with hailing distance. Basically what happens is the smaller a percentage of the Hispanic votes you get, that just means you've got to make it up with the white vote. The barrier becomes ever higher that you have to jump over. And there's a limit to how many, you know, how much blood you can squeeze from a stone. They don't have to get, you know, 40 percent, but the more they get figures like 31 percent like McCain did in 2008 or in the 20s like they're polling now, the harder it gets for them.

RAZ: Could one argue that there is a model for Republicans in Texas? Because, obviously, the Latino population has grown in Texas, and Texas is more Republican than ever. I mean, both houses in the legislature and the governor and...

TEIXEIRA: Well, that's primarily attributable to the fact that the white population has become more conservative over time. Though even that may be starting to change, as we see in the big metro areas. We have a more cosmopolitan mix of whites. We have more college-educated folks. And if you add on to that the increasing density of Hispanic population in Texas, there's a very reasonable argument that over the next 10 years, Texas becomes more competitive, not less competitive.

RAZ: Huh. In other words, Texas can become a state that votes primarily for Democrats in the next election?

TEIXEIRA: It could at least become a purple state, let's put it that way, that's contested between the two parties. I think that's quite possible.

RAZ: Demographer Ruy Teixeira is with the Center for American Progress. Now, some GOP strategists think Florida Senator Marco Rubio may be their secret weapon in winning Latino votes, especially if he's tapped as the vice presidential nominee. We'll talk to a Republican pollster who's advised Rubio and others about what Republicans can do to capture the Latino vote and the presidency. Stay with us. That's next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(BREAK)

RAZ: This week, a Fox News Latino poll found that Latino voters favor President Obama by a six-to-one margin over any of the Republican candidates.

Whit Ayers is the founder and president of North Star Opinion Research. It's a national public opinion research firm. He's a Republican consultant who counts many of the party's stars as clients. Now, he's been arguing that Republicans need to develop a better strategy to win Latino voters, but he also feels that those numbers I just mentioned, well, they're somewhat misleading.

WHIT AYERS: Republicans can do far better than that poll suggests. In his re-election campaign in 2004, President Bush received 44 percent of the Latino vote nationwide and a majority of the Latino vote in the sunbelt states. So we know that a candidate who reaches out and aggressively courts Latino voters can bring them into the Republican fold.

RAZ: How important do you think Latino voters will be, not just in 2012, but in subsequent elections going forward?

AYERS: Latino voters will become the number one swing voter group in the country. There's no question that in critical states - Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and who knows how many others - Latino voters can provide the critical margin of victory.

RAZ: You said recently at a breakfast meeting with reporters here in Washington, D.C., you said, if we Republicans do not do better among Latinos, we're not going to be talking about how to get back Florida in the presidential race. We're going to be talking about how not to lose Texas. Now, that sounds like an alarm bell you're ringing.

AYERS: Well, it's an alarm bell for the long-term growth of the party. In 1980, 88 percent of the American electorate was white. In 2008, 74 percent of the electorate was white. If we had the same demographics in 2008 that we had in 1980, John McCain would be president of the United States. Republicans are not stupid - we can count. And that means we will do significantly better in the future.

RAZ: What are the core issues that you think Republicans need to push to appeal to more Latino voters, especially younger Latino voters?

AYERS: Overwhelmingly, the most important issue in the Latino community today remains the state of the economy and jobs. And everything we can do to get the economy going and to present a picture of the Republican nominee as better for economic growth will mean the Republicans will do better in a Latino community.

RAZ: Whit, I know you are a prominent GOP consultant. A lot of Republican leaders listen to you. Do you think enough Republicans are taking this issue seriously?

AYERS: I think the ones who reflect more on the future of the party going forward, look at demographic trends and try to figure out how we are going to be a national governing party, take this issue very seriously.

RAZ: And the consequences of not taking it seriously?

AYERS: We'll lose.

RAZ: That's Republican consultant Whit Ayers. He's the founder and president of North Star Opinion Research. It's a national public opinion research firm. He's also the chairman of the American Association of Political Consultants and the co-founder with Ed Gillespie of Resurgent Republic. Whit Ayers, thank you so much.

AYERS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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