WASHINGTON – Snickers and doubts surrounded George W. Bush’s use of broken Spanish as a means to reach out to Latino voters, but a new poll suggests that his efforts just might be paying off.
Thanks to President Bush's lead, Republicans are earning more praise and confidence from Hispanic voters, leaving a clear message that the Latino vote is "up for grabs" in future elections, according to a study released Tuesday by The Latino Coalition in Washington, D.C.
"This survey clearly shows that the Latino population is up for grabs," said Latino Coalition President Robert de Posada, declaring the "formidable popularity" of Bush a primary reason for the shift.
"Clearly, the Latino population sees the Republican Party as the party of George Bush, not the party of Pete Wilson," he said, referring to the former California governor whose policies were seen as anti-Mexican immigrant, and responsible for pushing Hispanics toward the Democratic Party in that state.
In the survey, given in both Spanish and English to 1,000 Hispanic-Americans, 65 percent of which were of Mexican descent, registered voters gave Bush a 68 percent approval rating, while non-registered Hispanics gave him a 74 percent approval rating. They also said they prefer Bush over his 2000 opponent Vice President Al Gore 50 percent to 35 percent -- turning on its head a 2001 survey finding Gore ahead of Bush 54 percent to 28 percent.
John McLaughlin, the pollster who conducted the survey on behalf of the coalition, said the president’s popularity has trickled down into the Republican Party, bumping up the GOP's job approval rating among Latinos to 42 percent from 23 percent in 2001. On the contrary, Democrats slipped in this regard, with respondents giving them a 48 percent approval rating, as opposed to 55 percent last year.
"His policies are popular," said McLaughlin. "He’s the personification of the outreach on behalf of the party."
Up until now, Democrats have believed they have a lock on the Hispanic voting block, which as of 2000 hovered around 5.5 percent of the total voting population and is growing, said de Posada. "Hispanics are becoming more and more independent when it comes to politics," he said.
But Democrats dismissed the survey Tuesday, saying the "ultimate poll will be Election Day, November 5th."
"This poll says nothing new, Bush is popular among a lot of groups," said Guillermo Meneses, director of Hispanic media for the Democratic National Committee. "But when it comes to electing leaders, Hispanics turn to Democratic leaders, time and time again."
Meneses said voters in 2000 and 2001 indicated that Democrats and their policies were more in tune with this population and that will continue in future elections despite the "mariachi politics" of the administration.
"We’ve been doing that for the last 30 to 40 years -- they’ve only started reaching out in 2000, trying to play catch up," he said. "When you highlight and uncover the Republican record, it simply doesn’t not reflect the interest of Latinos moving forward."
Republicans had a similar, negative take on a report released last week by the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, which represents 35 Latino advocacy groups. The "scorecard" presented by the coalition gave a number of Democratic lawmakers perfect 100 percent scores based on their votes on "pro-Hispanic" bills like repairing public schools, the Democratic version of the patient bill of rights and against the confirmation of Attorney General John Ashcroft.
"We’re talking about Democrats grading Democrats," charged Sharon Castillo, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
Tuesday’s survey indeed found that more Hispanic respondents continue to consider themselves Democrats, a fact that the GOP has attempted to change through aggressive voter drives and leadership outreach efforts in the last few years.
But that number is changing in the GOP’s favor. Last year, 55 percent of respondents said they were Democrats at heart, while 17 percent said they were Republicans. This year, 48 percent claimed to be Democrats while 23 said they were Republican.
Republican Party approval increases among non-registered voters in this population, which de Posada said is young -- 42 is the average age -- and newer to the country.
"If I were the Republican Party I would start a massive registration drive tomorrow morning," he said.
The survey also found that 72 percent of respondents were Catholic and 64 percent are regular churchgoers. Over 60 percent reported an annual household income of $40,000 or below, and 67 percent said they had no 401 (k) retirement plan. Also, according to the survey, the greatest barriers to success for the Hispanic population in the country remain language skills and education.
The real "barrier" that both parties may encounter, however, is the lackluster response to the question of admirable Hispanic-American leaders. According to the survey, almost 75 percent of respondents said they could not identify a single leader they admired. Of those who did mention a name, 3.7 percent chose Mexican President Vicente Fox.
"This new political block in the U.S. is searching for a leader," said McLaughlin.