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Can Newt Gingrich Emulate George W. Bush's Success With Latinos?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has held onto his relatively moderate stance on immigration, despite negative reaction from Republican primary voters. A new NBC News-Marist poll out this week shows Gingrich leading in Florida and South Carolina, and data last week from the New York Times/CBS poll showing Gingrich gaining popularity in Iowa calls into question how potent his stance is among Republican primary voters.

True, Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped in the polls after repeatedly saying his fellow candidates “didn’t have a heart” regarding the plight of undocumented immigrants, but his language is echoed by Gingrich who called on fellow Republicans to be “humane.”  It seems more likely that Perry’s collapse reflects other debate gaffes, including being unable to remember what he would cut in his own economic plan.

More likely an explanation is that issues of the economy and a united desire to beat President Obama trump social issues and immigration. This means that Gingrich could be catapulted to the Republican nomination. Does his "moderate" stance open up the possibility of gaining the Latino votes President  Bush won in 2004? 

The 2004 Bush campaign made a big effort to appeal to Latino voters. The effort centered around themes of possibility, traditional values and faith based initiatives.  Former President Bush was an advocate of immigration reform and was rewarded at the polls with organizations such as the Annenberg Institute reporting he won as much as 44 percent of Latino votes.  Richard Nadler, President of America’s Majority, in an article for the National Review at that time wrote that 12,500 spots went across Spanish language media through the GOP’s 527 program.  According to Nadler, those ads and the the GOP’s 527 program showed that “from the steeply rising percentage of Hispanics who supported George Bush… one may conclude that conservative issues gained considerable traction among them.”

Gingrich recognized the importance of Spanish speaking Americans long ago, and even started a “news outlet” (with a Conservative editorial bent) to reach a Latino speaking audience.

Yet the equation has changed since 2004, with anti-immigrant rhetoric on the rise from Republicans, harsh laws in Arizona and Alabama, and a strong surge of activism among Democrats to register Latino voters. Unlike Romney or other Republican candidates, Democrats don't plaster the airwaves with anti-immigrant comments from debates. It's not clear if Gingrich can convince Latinos in this era of high tensions, particularly since he’s shown a tendency to backpedal from his statements on immigration when trying to say what he thinks primary voters want to hear.

In a speech in Naples, Florida a few days following his comments at the Republican debate where he defended his statements on immigration, Gingrich said that while he doesn’t believe families should be ripped apart, he does think individuals should return back to their native countries and reapply for legal entry.  The Republican crowd present was in approval, according to Michael Smerconish who reported on the event for the Philadelphia Enquirer.  After he watched Gingrich slightly back track from his immigration comments, Smerconish felt Gingrich’s words added up to maintenance of the federal immigration policy status quo.

Is a promise to uphold the immigration status quo enough for Latinos to consider voting for Gingrich, even if they are aligned with him on issues such as school vouchers, abortion and traditional family values? Most importantly, would Latinos in Florida, Texas, New Mexico and Nevada who voted for President George W. Bush in 2004 vote for him?  If Gingrich can appeal to them, it’s possible these groups could provide Gingrich more of a foothold in swing states like Florida, New Mexico and Nevada.

It’s a Free Country reached out to the office of Senator Marc Rubio, a prominent Republican and Cuban American in Florida, to ask about Gingrich’s traction with Hispanic voters, but was told the Senator was not commenting on the 2012 elections. The Hispanic Leadership Network, a newly formed organization dedicated to getting Latinos to vote Republican in the 2012 elections also declined to comment on the 2012 race. 

The hesitancy to tout one candidate’s chances over another, especially when voters appear to be willing to change their mind per the NYT/CBS poll, is understandable. The real question is whether Gingrich's ideas, which stop short of granting citizenship, is a palatable option for Latinos who see many in their communities struggling with the fear of deportation. If Gingrich is only seen as "moderate" in relation to the other GOP candidates, that might not be enough to win Latinos over. Obama at least lures with the promise of comprehensive immigration reform, even if that promise has yet to be realized.

If Gingrich ends up the GOP nominee, it could potentially bring back Bush-like rhetoric from 2004 and allow Republicans to build a strategy that targets Latinos. It may seem a long shot, but then again, so was the idea of Gingrich as the favored nominee a few months ago. 

Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

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