Bush Snags Much More of the Latino Vote, Exit Polls Show

His 7 percentage-point gain in support over 2000 is a strategic political win. But the constituency's support is considered 'volatile.'

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
Times Staff Writer

November 4, 2004

WASHINGTON — President Bush increased his support among Latino voters in Tuesday's election, helping to dash Democratic hopes of victory while increasing the potential political leverage of the rapidly growing constituency.

Although Democrat John F. Kerry got 54% of the Latino vote nationally, Bush's 45% share represented a gain of 7 percentage points from the 2000 election, according to Los Angeles Times exit polls. That was a strategic victory for Bush's chief political advisor, Karl Rove, who had made lifting the president's showing among Latinos a key to the president's reelection.

And, although Democrats had hoped to make Latinos a dependable bloc in their base, the returns suggest that either party can win Latino support if it offers candidates and messages that resonate.

"The fact that the Hispanic electorate continues to be volatile makes it one of the most important swing votes in America," said Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen, who has conducted surveys for Democrats.

For example, a surge in voting by Latinos helped elect two U.S. senators — a Colorado Democrat and a Florida Republican. That means the Senate will have two Hispanic members for the first time.

But several analysts said it was unclear what policies Bush would pursue on immigration and other matters considered important to Latinos.

"I don't see a fundamental change in the national or legislative politics of immigration as a result of the outcome," said Rick Swartz, a longtime Washington political consultant on immigration policy. "There remains significant opposition in the Republican Party to the president's own [immigration reform] plan."

Bush's share of the Latino vote represents the best performance by a Republican presidential candidate in 20 years, since President Reagan won the support of 46% of Latinos in his 1984 reelection campaign. At that time, the pool of Latino voters was much smaller.

Bush's gains came despite polls that showed strong majorities of Latinos opposed the war in Iraq.

In California, which went solidly for Kerry, there was still a pronounced improvement for Bush. He received 31% of the Latino vote in the state, compared to 23% four years ago. That 8 percentage-point bump compared to a gain of 2 percentage points for Bush among all California voters.

Republicans have often talked of engineering a national political realignment that would solidify their control of the White House and Congress. Such scenarios usually include wooing a significant share of the Latino electorate, though not necessarily a majority.

"That's pretty much what happened Tuesday," said Larry Gonzalez, Washington director for the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "The White House strategy of going after Hispanic voters at the national level has borne fruit."

Bush's appeal appears to stem from a combination of personal, cultural and political factors.

A former border-state governor, Bush is at ease among Latinos. His body language and occasional use of Spanish phrases convey a sense of familiarity.

"The president is very charismatic with Hispanics," Bendixen said.

Republican cultural conservatism also resonates with many Latinos, who tend to embrace traditional family and religious values. "I think that's one of the issues that mobilized the Hispanic electorate tremendously," said Roberto de Posada, president of the business-oriented Latino Coalition. Opposition to "the gay marriage issue is a concept that worked very, very well for Bush."

Other factors are more subtle. For example, Gonzalez said new citizens with no firm political allegiance account for a significant share of Latino voters.

"What is driving the Latino vote is the participation of naturalized voters," Gonzalez said. "They are not tied to a party. They are up for grabs because they have no political history here."

Latino members of the armed forces, like many other members of the military, tend to support Bush and other Republicans. Many Latino families in New Mexico and Arizona have a connection to the military, and that might help explain why Bush drew voters in those states, Bendixen said.

But some analysts dispute the notion that Latinos may contribute to any long-term Republican realignment.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a think tank with offices in Texas and California, said the methodology used by The Times and other national exit polls does not accurately capture the Latino voter.

Gonzalez said exit polls by his organization, more weighted toward urban voters, showed Kerry with a 2-to-1 advantage among Latinos. "The explanation for the Bush victory, frankly, lies elsewhere," Gonzalez said.

However, Times polling director Susan Pinkus took issue with the criticism, saying the newspaper's poll uses a representative sample that balances urban and rural precincts, as well as those ranging from heavily Democratic to heavily Republican.

In laying the groundwork for the election, Democrats sought to take advantage of increases in Latino voter registration in the Southwest. The aim was to create a so-called cactus corridor that would open more of the West to Democratic candidates.

"Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona were the new fertile areas to fight for," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization in Washington.

"That could change the contours of the political map by creating blue zones in the inter-mountain states."

But Bush made inroads among Latinos in those states, national exit polls showed.

"The one thing we know for sure is that the Democratic strategy on the Latino vote did not work," Suro said. "They were not able to move a single one of those states."

There was a bright spot for Democrats in Colorado. Although Kerry did not carry the state, Democratic Atty. Gen. Ken Salazar won an open U.S. Senate seat, beating beer magnate Pete Coors.

In Florida, Republican Mel Martinez became the first Cuban American elected to the Senate. Salazar and Martinez both won with strong Latino support, but their personal stories and political trajectories are far different.

Martinez, who was Bush's Housing and Urban Development secretary, is an immigrant who staked out staunchly conservative positions in the Republican primary.

Salazar's family has been in Colorado for five generations, and his political positions tracked the Democratic platform.

"Salazar and Martinez show how diverse this vote is," Suro said. "They are both Hispanics, but you wouldn't expect them to vote the same way on many issues."