November 9, 2004 THE ELECTORATE

Hispanic Voters Declared Their Independence


DENVER, Nov. 8 - The Spanish-language television advertisements for President Bush went negative this fall, attacking Senator John Kerry's voting record and his stance on abortion. Mr. Kerry's Spanish television advertisements, in keeping with the traditional appeals that Democrats have made to Hispanic voters for generations, mostly stayed positive, rarely even mentioning Mr. Bush's name.

But in the end, Mr. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, more than any Republican presidential candidate in at least three decades. That tally, more than 10 percentage points higher than he received in 2000, shattered the Democrats' hopes that a growing Hispanic population would help Mr. Kerry in Colorado or New Mexico, or perhaps even Florida.

Few experts say they believe Mr. Bush has achieved a seismic shift of the sort that Ronald Reagan brought about in the early 1980's in winning over blue-collar white voters. A clear majority of Hispanics, after all, still voted for Mr. Kerry.

What is unquestionably clear, those experts say, is that like the great Latino wave in pop culture, which has more and more influence in areas like music, food and fashion, this election has taken Hispanic voters a giant leap away from being thought of as separate and different. A reliable Democrat no longer, taken for granted no longer - and more electable than ever in their own right, with the first two Hispanic United States senators in 30 years poised to take office, from Colorado and Florida - a new swing voter may have emerged.

"The bottom line to me is that with this result, it's no longer sensible to think of Hispanic voters on a national basis as a core constituency of the Democratic Party," said Roberto Suro, the director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization based in Washington.

"We are up for grabs," said F. Chris Garcia, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. "That is a good thing for Hispanics; we're going to be more influential in the future and a bigger target for both campaigns."

No one thing explains how Mr. Bush was able to achieve this coup. The loyalty of Cuban-Americans already gave the Republican Party a foothold among Hispanic voters, and Mr. Bush was already strong among Hispanic voters in Texas, who are mainly Mexican-Americans.

But the two parties' different strategies, reflected in the Spanish television advertisements, Hispanic scholars and political analysts say, were revealing if not decisive. The Bush campaign approached Hispanic voters exactly the way it did everybody else: by reaching out for cultural conservatives, who in this case just happened to be Hispanic. The Kerry campaign sought votes as if Hispanics, as in the past, were reliably Democrat. The advertisements emphasized issues like immigration and economic opportunity and used few attack advertisement techniques, omnipresent on English-language television, to close the deal.

"The Democrats made a broad appeal to a Democratic base and not a specific appeal at all to religious Hispanic voters, or even specific segments of the Hispanic electorate," said Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at the Johns Hopkins University. "The Bush campaign used moral values, and specifically the national discussion over gay marriage and abortion rights, as wedge issues within the Hispanic community to try to break off a conservative religious segment."

Les Dorrance, a security guard in Denver whose family has lived in Colorado for generations, is the kind of Hispanic voter the Bush campaign went after and won.

Mr. Dorrance said conservative values about abortion and the sanctity of marriage were important issues for him, and he went straight down the Republican line after Mr. Bush's name, even going so far as to vote against Ken Salazar, the lone Hispanic on Colorado's statewide ballot, in the process. Mr. Salazar beat the Republican candidate, Pete Coors, for the open Senate seat being vacated by Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican who chose not to seek a third term.

"I voted for Bush based on his moral stance," Mr. Dorrance said on a recent sunny morning in Denver as he patrolled outside a downtown office building. "Bush is pro-life, I'm pro-life. He believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, and so do I."

But conservative social values were just part of the appeal, experts say.

Hispanics are heavily represented in the Marines, for example, and according to some national polls are about as patriotic as Americans get; both factors could have increased support for a sitting president in wartime. And the the candidates's focus on security and global terrorism may have blunted the domestic and economic issues that Democrats have used in the past to score well with the heavily blue-collar Hispanic population.

"The campaigns, either purposefully or not, didn't bring to the forefront things like jobs, education and health care," said Janet Murguia, the executive director and chief operating officer of the National Council of La Raza, a nonpartisan civil rights group. "At the same time there was a very concerted effort by the Republicans to target the Hispanic community in some new ways."

Ms. Murguia said the Roman Catholic Church had a role in that outreach, with sermons and other messages in Spanish-speaking parishes on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, which many conservatives oppose because it can result in destroying human embryos.

Negative advertisements by the Bush campaign on Spanish television were also an innovation this year, according to the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins. In the 2000 campaign, neither Mr. Bush nor his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, used negative Spanish-language television advertisements, school officials said.

Even the tagline that was used in many print advertisements under the president's name reinforced the campaign's message that Mr. Bush was the candidate, despite all the history and tradition with the Democrats, who really spoke the inner language of Hispanic culture.

"Nos conocemos," the advertisements said. "We know each other."

Some political scholars caution that, like Americans in every category, more Hispanic voters cast ballots this year, so it is possible that on-the-ground organization was as responsible as a conservative Republican message. Mr. Bush may have done well, they say, because more of the people who already agreed with him went to the polls.

Mr. Bush has personally done well among Hispanic voters before. In his first election for president in 2000, he got 35 percent of the Hispanic vote, second until this year only to Mr. Reagan, who got at least 37 percent in 1984, according to voter surveys going back to 1972.

It is too early, some experts say, to suggest that Bush Hispanics will join the ranks of Reagan Democrats. Professor Garcia of the University of New Mexico, for example, does not think that this election portends a permanent new pattern in the Hispanic vote.

"One swallow does not make a spring," he said.

But other experts say that crossing the 40 percent threshold is a turning point, especially given that the rapidly growing Hispanic population has become the largest ethnic minority in the nation.

Mr. Suro, and others, say that perhaps the real message of the election is that Hispanic voters cannot be pigeonholed. In a year when the national Democratic Party floundered in reaching Hispanics, the first two in 30 years were elected to the United States Senate: Mr. Salazar, a Democrat, here in Colorado, and Mel Martinez, a Republican, who was elected to the seat being vacated by Senator Bob Graham in Florida.

But where Mr. Salazar is a moderate with deep rural roots as a farmer and rancher, Mr. Martinez is a conservative Cuban-American who is Mr. Bush's former secretary of housing and urban development. And both had to appeal far outside any traditionally defined ethnic voting bloc to be elected.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company