February 24, 2010
By ROBERT T. GARRETT / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – A bent to conservatism and family makes Hispanics a promising pool of votes for Republicans, but the party's targeting of illegal immigrants has withered its attraction.
Regardless, Gov. Rick Perry has fared relatively well, perhaps because of his anti-Washington rhetoric and his careful immigration stance, a recent poll indicates.
It shows more than half of Texas Hispanics call themselves conservative, and a surprising 23 percent say they might participate in Tuesday's GOP primary. Among those, Perry leads Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison by 2 to 1, according to the poll, commissioned by an Austin consultant for a national group of Hispanic legislative leaders.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said the poll hints at a little-noticed facet of Perry's political persona: He doesn't frighten Hispanics because he often visits their communities, and he distances himself from immigration hard-liners in the GOP.
"He thought the border wall was a little ridiculous and didn't think it was going to help," said Van de Putte, Democrats' leader in the Senate and a co-chairwoman of the Democratic National Convention in Denver two years ago. "What he wanted to keep out were those people that are smuggling drugs and people."
Van de Putte said Perry tilts more to the right than his predecessor, George W. Bush, and can't match Bush's high level of support among Hispanics. But she said many Hispanics remember that Perry signed a 2001 bill that let illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at public colleges. He has defended the bill, saying affected students have studied hard in Texas schools and will be good citizens.
"That kind of inoculated him a little bit," she said. She added: "Rick Perry is a tremendous retail campaigner."
Some political demographers remain skeptical that more than a smattering of Hispanics will cast GOP ballots next week or that Perry will capture much beyond token support among Latinos in the primary or November's election.
Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said exit polls in recent governor's races show Perry captured far less of the Hispanic vote than the 39 percent that Bush grabbed in 1998 against Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, a Democrat.
Perry attracted only 13 percent of Hispanic votes cast in his 2002 general election showdown with Laredo banker Tony Sanchez, according to exit polls by the William C. Velasquez Institute, a think tank affiliated with Camarillo's group.
Four years ago, Perry won just 14 percent of Hispanic votes cast, compared with 40 percent for Democrat Chris Bell and 29 percent for independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn, exit polls showed.
With both Perry and Hutchison stressing a lean state government and low taxes, Camarillo said, it's hard to see many Hispanics breaking for the GOP nominee this year.
The poll found that only 18 percent of Texas Hispanics say they're liberal or progressive, while 54 percent say they're conservative, moderate conservative or religiously conservative.
But Camarillo said many Hispanics who identify themselves as conservative aren't talking about "less taxes, less government," the way white conservatives would.
"When a Latino says that he or she is conservative, they're thinking about how they are raising the kids and ... the family," she said. "It's more about work ethic, and that when you give your word, you give your word. Those kinds of things are what they're thinking of. It's a different frame of mind, and pollsters have yet to define it."
Demographer Dan Weiser pointed to voter turnout in recent Dallas County elections and said that despite the poll's findings, Perry can hope for relatively little Hispanic support.
In the hotly contested 2008 presidential primary in Dallas County, 91 percent of Hispanics who participated cast a Democratic ballot, he said. Weiser, a longtime student of Dallas politics, projects countywide turnout among minorities by studying key precincts dominated by blacks or Hispanics.
He said that while almost 300,000 voters participated in Dallas County's presidential primary two years ago, only 12 percent were Hispanics. Of about 92,000 voters in the county's last GOP presidential primary, only 4 percent were Hispanics, Weiser said.
"Each time you think there will be a real increase in Hispanic votes, I don't find it," he said.
Frank Santos, the Austin lobbyist and consultant who commissioned the poll, conceded it's only a first attempt to grasp Hispanics' complex leanings.
The Board of Hispanic Caucus Chairs, a group of Hispanic legislative leaders from 32 states, paid for the poll. It was supervised by Cristina Garcia, a California-based researcher who studies Hispanic civic engagement. There were telephone interviews with 502 registered Hispanic voters, conducted Jan. 27-31, in either English or Spanish, at the choice of the voter surveyed. The poll has an error margin of 4.4 percent, meaning results can vary by that much in either direction.
A wakeup call
"It's really a wakeup call for both parties," said Santos, the group's executive director. "Either [Hispanics] are being taken for granted by the Democratic Party or they're being ignored by the Republican Party."
He said that of about 3 million new people added to Texas' population between 2000 and 2008, 63 percent were Hispanic.
A majority said they're conservative, but a bigger share, 63 percent, said they identify most with the Democratic Party. And 70 percent approve of the job that President Barack Obama is doing. Meanwhile, 54 percent approve of Perry's performance as governor; and 58 percent, of Hutchison's as senator.
"What does that say?" Santos said. "It says they're a growing, developing and evolving electorate."