The most disappointing moment in the televised GOP debate two weeks ago in Tampa came when none of the presidential candidates managed to provide a strong, positive answer to an audience question about how Republicans should build support among Hispanic voters.
This feeble response ought to worry all conservatives who hope to defeat Barack Obama in next year’s elections. According to exit polls, received 67% of Latino votes in 2008, and if he replicates that success in 2012 (when the growing Hispanic population will make up aneven larger share of the electorate) his victory will be assured.
Republicans can feel encouraged, however, that the Gallup Poll shows Obama’s approval among Hispanicsdipping below 50% for the first time. But spreading disillusionment with Democrats hardly guarantees support for Republicans — especially with GOP tough talk against illegal immigration frightening or insulting many Hispanics citizens.
When politicians insist (as did most of the presidential contenders in Tampa) that they actually love legal immigrants and oppose only unauthorized newcomers, they might reduce Latino fears of Republicans as racist and hostile, but ritualistic declarations that “we don’t really hate you” hardly offer an affirmative basis for GOP affiliation.
In fact, Republicans could easily provide that positive connection if they forcefully moved beyond the immigration issue to stress two key values that conservatives share with big majorities in Hispanic communities.
What binds us
First, no priority plays a larger role in Latino culture than La Familia— the family — with emphasis on powerful ties binding the generations (and even distant cousins) in a durable web of connection and identity. The long-standing GOP identification with “family values” might alienate some electoral blocs (particularly younger, college-educated voters), but most Hispanics favor a more traditional, conservative outlook on domestic relationships.
In the bitter California battle over Proposition 8 in 2008, Hispanics voted in greater numbers than non-Hispanic whites to limit marriage to one man and one woman. Moreover, the strong Catholic influence in Latino communities also puts Hispanic attitudes on abortion more closely in line with Republicans than with Democrats.
In fact, by one crucial measure Latinos look dramatically out of place as part of Obama’s coalition: In the last election, regular church attendance correlated powerfully with support for Republican John McCain. Among those who went to services once a week or more, McCain won a landslide margin of 12 percentage points, but among those who said they “never” attended church Obama won by 37 points.
Meanwhile, the most recent Gallup Poll on the subject (June 2010) showed Hispanics notably more likely to report “frequent” church participation than non-Hispanic whites. As the party most identified with defense of traditional families and outspoken religiosity, and most opposed to aggressive secularism and experimental approaches to intimate relations, Republicans could exert a strong visceral appeal to Hispanic voters.
On a second core value, the GOP enjoys similar advantages: While Democrats make a fetish of multiculturalism and diversity, Republicans have identified themselves as a force for assimilation and the melting pot. Activists and ethnic organizations might benefit by treating the nation’s rapidly rising Latino population like some indigestible, inassimilable “other,” but the great bulk of ordinary Hispanic families display a strong desire to join the American mainstream.
Chicago education reformer Juan Rangel stresses “the central question” for Hispanics: “Do we want to be the next victimized minority group in America, or do we want to be the next successful immigrant group? … This is a great community that’s poised to do great things — but you gotta challenge it. Don’t pander to it.”
Parallels to past immigrants
Conservatives should connect with Latinos by suggesting that they follow the example of immigrant Irish, Italians, Jews and Asians — all of whom faced nativist hostility and economic hardships but managed to advance through hard work, education and the affirmation of historic American values. After all, Latinos didn’t struggle to get here from less fortunate nations in order to replicate the dysfunctional political and social patterns of their homelands. They came so that their children at least could become Americans, benefiting from the sense of American exceptionalism that makes many contemporary liberals uncomfortable.
The main obstacle to Republican success in building Hispanic support based on boosting family and assimilation stems from the unfortunate GOP association with harsh, anti-immigrant extremism that undermines those very ideals. The agitation for mass deportations separating undocumented parents from their American-born, U.S. citizen children hardly demonstrates a respect for enduring family values. And immigrants face no more formidable hurdle to their ultimate assimilation than current rules that give them no chance to work for legal status if they arrived without authorization — no matter how long they’ve lived in this country, how hard they’ve worked and how fervently they seek to pursue the American dream. Fortunately, Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems to understand that an angry, unforgiving tone on the immigration debate will prevent Latino voters from recognizing how much they actually share with the GOP on other issues. All serious challengers to President Obama should begin to make the case more effectively that Hispanics belong in the GOP, not because Republicans offer them targeted concessions or special privileges, but because the conservative stress on stable, traditional families and rapid assimilation into American life offers the best chances for dignity, progress and prosperity for Americans of every national origin.
Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated daily radio talk show and is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.