Republicans are repelling Hispanic voters. That is good news for Democrats
LAS VEGAS (Economist) September 21, 2007 – Bill Richardson is the strongest second-tier contender for the Democratic nomination, and the only one with any hope of challenging the big three Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. He has two main selling points. One is his resumι which includes an incident in which he offended Saddam Hussein by showing him the sole of his shoe. The other is that, despite his name, he is Hispanic. (His mother is Mexican and, though he was born in California, he lived in Mexico until he was a teenager.)
Mr. Richardson’s resumι certainly sounds presidential. After 14 years in Congress, he was America’s ambassador to the United Nations. He has run a large federal bureaucracy (as Bill Clinton’s energy secretary), and a state (he is currently the governor of New Mexico). The contrast with the big three is striking. Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Edwards has ever run anything much, and Mrs. Clinton’s main qualification eight years as the unofficial chief adviser to a president is marred for some voters by the fact that she was married to him. One of Mr. Richardson’s more amusing campaign ads shows him at a job interview where the interviewer shrugs: For what we’re looking for, you might be a little over-qualified.
Mr. Richardson’s foreign-policy experience is a plus, especially when compared with beginners such as Mr. Edwards and Mr. Obama. He has won a reputation for troubleshooting in horrible places, having secured the release of American prisoners in North Korea and Sudan as well as Baghdad. And he proposes a swifter and more complete withdrawal from Iraq than any of his big rivals, which should please Democratic primary voters. On the downside, some of his more ambitious foreign ventures have flopped. A ceasefire he helped broker in Darfur this year, for instance, was instantly broken.
Mr. Richardson’s domestic experience lends him credibility in crucial areas. A former energy secretary, voters may assume, will know how to tackle climate change. And he is reckoned to be a pretty good governor. He has cut taxes and balanced budgets, buoyed by an oil windfall. He raised teachers’ salaries and extended benefits to gay partners of state employees. No one would mistake him for a stereotypical Democrat, though: he favors both the death penalty and gun rights.
He has weaknesses. He is a back-slapping, deal-making kind of politician, which is fine, but he often sounds fuzzy when talking about policy minutiae. And while hardly a slave to Democratic Party fashion, he is not immune to it either. In the 1990s, he supported the North American Free-Trade Agreement; now he says he is disillusioned with free trade.
Mr. Richardson’s Hispanic heritage will probably help him. Hispanics make up about 15% of the population. Many are not yet citizens and so cannot vote, but the Hispanic electorate will have nearly doubled between 2000 and 2008, from 7.5 million to 14 million, by one estimate. Hispanics are both the largest and the fastest-growing minority, and their votes are up for grabs. Whereas African-Americans vote monolithically for the same party (the Democrats), Hispanics switch back and forth a bit.
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George Bush wooed them assiduously and won 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004 twice the share his fellow Republican Bob Dole had managed eight years previously. But then naive Republicans derailed Mr. Bush’s plan for a more welcoming immigration system. Some of them, such as Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado, used alarmist rhetoric that sounded hostile to Hispanics in general. Hispanics duly dumped the Republicans the Democrats’ 19 percentage point lead in 2004 swelled to 39 points in 2006.
Democratic strategists confidently predict they will maintain their lead among Hispanics in 2008. Immigration reform is still stalled, and the top Republican presidential candidates, with the conspicuous exception of John McCain, are pandering to naive voters. The line-up at Republican presidential debates was all-white until a few days ago, and includes both Mr. Tancredo and Duncan Hunter, who boasts he will build not one but two fences along the Mexican border. Neither has a chance of winning, but the contrast with the Democrats is nonetheless stark. Two of their candidates speak fluent Spanish (the other is Christopher Dodd). All attended a debate on Univision, a Spanish-language channel, on September 9th; the Republicans have yet to follow suit.
It is pointless to make long-term predictions about how a group as diverse as Hispanics will vote it depends how each party treats them. But one can wager that Republican raging about illegal immigration will boost the Democrats next year. If they take Florida, a big swing state where 11% of those who voted in 2006 were Hispanic, it will be hard for a Republican to win the White House. That is also true if they capture Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, which are all heavily Hispanic.
A Hispanic preference for Democrats, however, does not translate easily into a ticket with Mr. Richardson on top. At a recent campaign stop in Las Vegas, he stroked the crowds competently and bilingually, but without displaying much of his rivals’ star power. And thanks to his name, many Hispanics do not even realize he is one of them. Hillary Clinton, who is better-known and better-organized, is far more popular among Hispanic Democrats a poll in March showed her beating him by 60% to 9%. But Mr. Richardson is bullish about catching up. He did well in the Univision debate with quips such as: If you build a 12-foot wall, people will get 13-foot ladders. He is vying for third place in New Hampshire.
But still, his most realistic shot may be at the vice-presidency. The Democratic nominee is likely to be a white female senator from the north-east. A male Hispanic governor from the south-west would balance the ticket nicely. One snag, though, is that Mrs. Clinton is said not to be a huge fan. It is not clear why, but a joke Mr. Richardson told in 2005 cannot have helped.
In a speech at the Gridiron dinner, a Washington event where hacks and politicians traditionally mock themselves and each other, Mr. Richardson spoke about Democratic presidential candidates. We’ve got a lot of good ones, he said. There’s Governor [Tom] Vilsack of Iowa he’d bring back the Midwest. There’s [Senator] Joe Biden he’d bring back the national-security voter. And there’s Hillary Clinton she’d bring back the White House furniture.