New Republican research on the GOP and Hispanics gives the party reason for hope that it can climb out of the political hole it is in with these voters. But there’s some bad news mixed in with the good, laid out in a Public Opinion Strategies memo about two lengthy focus groups of Hispanic voters this month in Las Vegas.
The most surprising findings involve social and cultural issues. Conservatives may assume they have the franchise on “faith and family” and all that label signifies, but Hispanics don’t see it that way.
Polls show that Hispanics really do line up more with Republicans on gay marriage and abortion, as the GOP claims when it talks of Hispanics as Republicans in waiting or Republicans who just don’t realize it yet. But “by a rather staggering margin,” POS partner Nicole McCleskey writes in the memo, Hispanics say they are much more likely to agree with the Democratic approach to social and cultural issues.
How can that be? The POS focus groups suggested that while Republicans interpret “social and cultural issues” primarily to mean gay rights and gay marriage, for Hispanics the phrase has to do with justice, fairness, and respect for “cultural differences.” “It’s no wonder Hispanic voters are perplexed when Republicans insist we share the same values,” McCleskey writes. They are also perplexed when asked if the GOP is more likely to share their values of faith and family, she says, “because they do not see either party as having cornered the market on faith and family.”
McCleskey said in an interview that Republicans and Hispanics "talk past each other” on social and cultural issues, particularly when it comes to the phrase "faith and family." “I don’t know if they hear what is intended, which is that we share similar positions on the value of the traditional family,” she said. “It’s kind of a code and they haven’t gotten the decoder ring.” She said she doesn’t have the answer yet for how the GOP should proceed, and intends her work to be a conversation-starter.
On the good-news front, the focus-group participants liked what they heard about Medicaid, immigration, economics, and education in clips from speeches by some prominent party figures. But the people they listened to—New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—are unusual in how they talk about these issues and seemed like anomalies to the focus-group participants.
Comments about Christie, who is expanding Medicaid under the new health care law even though he disagrees with the law, summed up the problem. After hearing him talk about the human cost of not taking the new federal Medicaid money, the focus-group participants described him as human, caring, and someone who calls it like he sees it—but said he is just one person. The overriding perceptions among Hispanics, according to McCleskey’s memo, are that “Republicans don’t want us here” and whatever they say about the economy “will naturally be to the advantage to the wealthy and hurt the working class.”
Martinez won praise from McCleskey for going beyond the “traditional opportunity refrain” to frame lower business-tax rates as a matter of fairness—leveling the playing field with neighboring states. Bush’s description of why he pursued his Florida education reforms—to lift the poor and shrink the achievement gap between white and minority students—was powerful and “surprising stuff” to the groups, she said in the memo. McCleskey also said Paul was lauded for using personal stories in a discussion of immigration reform and making clear it is about all immigrants and not just Mexicans. McCleskey warned, however, that Republicans need to be careful about stressing that new citizens will create new taxpayers. That point reminded the focus groups of their perception that “Republicans care more about money than they do about people,” she wrote.
It will take a presidential candidate to recast the image of the party, but the 2016 nominee is not likely to be one of the three politicians the POS focus groups showcased talking about immigration, education, or the economy. Martinez has signaled so far that she is not interested in a national race. Bush, whose wife is Mexican, clearly is interested, but the nation probably is not ready for a third Bush presidency (his mother certainly isn’t, telling NBC this week that “we’ve had enough Bushes” in the White House). As for Paul, he is laying groundwork for a 2016 bid and may be less of a boutique candidate than his dad, but his libertarian leanings and odd mix of positions still make him a long shot.
The GOP does have some politicians with the potential to shift Hispanic views of Republicans. Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida are at the top of that list. “Those two dominate the landscape as far as being change agents for our party,” McCleskey told National Journal. But first they’d have to survive a primary process that in 2012 reinforced the idea that Republicans are hostile to immigrants and led seven in 10 Hispanics to vote for Barack Obama.