TERENCE SMITH: Tonight in Albuquerque, Democratic candidates for president will come together in a debate sponsored by New Mexico's Gov. Bill Richardson (D) and members of the Hispanic congressional caucus. It airs on PBS tonight in English with a Spanish translation, and will be rebroadcast in Spanish Saturday on Univision, the Spanish Language Network.
The debate is another sign of the growing importance of the Hispanic vote in American politics.
According to the largest national survey of Hispanic attitudes released this week by the Annenberg Foundation, Hispanics tilt toward a more liberal position on economic issues.
Eighty percent favor more federal spending on schools, 75 percent favor more spending to provide health coverage to the uninsured.
But Hispanics are more conservative on social issues, even more so than most voters. A survey found that 37 percent favor a federal ban on abortion, and 58 percent favor school vouchers.
We look more at this picture now with Leslie Sanchez, head of Impacto Strategies, a Republican consulting and marketing firm focusing on Hispanic voters. And with Maria Cardona, director of the Hispanic Project at the New Democratic Network, an advocacy group that works with Democratic candidates. Welcome to you both.
Maria Cardona, what does it say to you that the first full Democratic debate of the campaign season is in Albuquerque and clearly targeted towards Latino voters? What's the message in that?
MARIA CARDONA: I think that the message is, is that Democrats are understanding the incredible significance of the Latino vote. Frankly, the importance of the Latino vote cannot be overstated. There's been a huge growth, as everyone has seen, in this constituency.
In fact, we are now the largest and fastest growing minority in this country. And there is an incredible potential in terms of political force if the parties are going to reach out to these people and going to talk to them in ways that are very effective. And the Democrats are starting to understand that and they are doing that, and I think quite effectively so far.
TERENCE SMITH: Leslie Sanchez, what does it say to you that this is the place and the time and the target of this first debate?
LESLIE SANCHEZ: I think it says a lot to the fact that, in our recent survey, less than 10 percent of the people of Latinos that were surveyed, understood or even knew who the Democratic candidates are for president. I think Democrats are recognizing that a base that they used to take for granted of Latino support is really more moderately conservative, they're more right of center, they're more interested in getting involved in not only social issues, but economic issues. And Latinos are ready to become players in the political battleground. So it's exciting to see that the Democratic Party, though coming lately, is actually going to make an attempt to reach to our constituency.
TERENCE SMITH: Maria Cardona, I wonder if you think it is true that Democrats have in the past, or even now, tended to take Latino or Hispanic voters for granted. And secondly, what you think they have to do tonight to avoid that?
MARIA CARDONA: Well, here's I think the issue: Democrats are the party that have the history with Latino voters and the legacy with Latino voters. I do think that in years past, Democrats have taken this vote for granted, and we have seen, frankly, a surge in support for Republican candidates, especially President Bush, in the last couple of years Latinos have wanted to support him. And so what we are trying to do is to make the party understand the importance of the Latino vote, that we cannot take this group for granted.
In fact, it swings harder probably than any other constituency, and that they need to be out there effectively communicating their message, which is, frankly, a more Latino-friendly message, and we have Latino-friendly policies, much more so than the Republicans do, and that's what they're going to do tonight, they're going to go out there and communicate what the Democratic Party means, the values of the Democratic Party, which are more in line with the values of Latinos across this country on issues that they actually vote on, the economic issues, the issues that they feel are important to put food on the table, to educate their kids and to be able to survive economically and to succeed in this country.
TERENCE SMITH: Leslie Sanchez, the Census Bureau reports that there are now 39.8 million Hispanics or Latinos in this country. And I wonder what trends you see in recent polls in their voting patterns and political preferences.
LESLIE SANCHEZ: That's a great question. You know, I think with what we see here is really the Latinization of America. We are not only in the traditional states of California, Texas, Florida and New York, Illinois. You're seeing Latinos that are make a difference in Iowa, Nebraska, Atlanta, Ga., states and local elections all the way down ballot, Latino vote can be pivotal.
We what we do know and what we've seen trending for the last four or five years is that we have about 30 percent base GOP Hispanic support vote.
We have about 45 percent strong Democrat. But this very interesting open-minded, independent, swing voter that's about 25 percent of the voting block, and that's really where the Republican Party and the Democratic Party I think are going to be vying to be competitive. It's that economically upwardly mobile Latino.
MARIA CARDONA: I actually do agree with Leslie on the fact that the Latino face of this country is changing. North Carolina has seen a 400 percent growth in the last decade of Latinos in that state. And I think what you're also seeing is that the majority of Latino voters in this country are now Spanish-dominant and they are foreign-born. So what this means is that the parties have to change the way they communicate with this block of voters, and they have to understand that they have to be able to communicate effectively, communicate on Spanish Language TV.
And I will say that President Bush and the Republicans have been very good at doing this. Democrats now understand the importance of it, and now that they have the policies, they have the legacy, they now are going to communicate more effectively with them. I do think that Democrats will have the majority of the Latino vote in the coming elections.
TERENCE SMITH: Leslie Sanchez, you mentioned earlier President Bush's performance in this community in 2000. How does he stand with those voters today in terms of their approval or disapproval of his policies?
LESLIE SANCHEZ: President Bush has such a strong appeal in the Hispanic community, and I think the Democrats recognize that and that's why you're seeing efforts like these for the Democrats to get in and do focus groups and market research to understand what is happening in the Latino community. President Bush was able to transcend by talking about education, jobs, issues that matter, about you know, helping small businesses.
Those are issues that are very strong to the Republican Party, but it's a message that President Bush directly took to the Latino community, and he took it to us in our language. That's something that was very much endearing to him, but it's also a commitment that he followed up with not only in policies he's moving forward with in education through No Child Left Behind, but other efforts that he made with his presidential appointments and even with the case of Miguel Estrada, looking for qualified candidates who are really of diverse backgrounds who could really, you know, speak to what America looks like today.
TERENCE SMITH: Maria Cardona, what's your settlement of where George Bush stands today three years after he did do well with that community in 2000?
MARIA CARDONA: He did. He got 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000. And in fact, like I said before, he was doing very well in his first year and a half in office because he talked about issues like education, which is the number one issue for our community, and they wanted to believe him on it.
Here's the problem: President Bush now suffers from a serious credibility gap with our community because they have not seen the promises that he has made come to fruition. He promised more money for public schools -- 91 percent of Latino families send their kids to public schools. Where's the money? There is no funding there. He promised more immigration reform. He promised a closer relationship with Latin America, with President Vicente Fox. That has not happened. In fact, it's gone by the wayside and Latino voters see this. And they now see that there's a serious issue with the promises that this president has made and he has lost support.
In fact, in our most recent poll we see that he is back down at 34 percent... one point lower than what he got in 2000, and if he doesn't do better with this community, then all of their outreach is going to be for naught.
TERENCE SMITH: Leslie Sanchez, it's impossible obviously to generalize about 38 million people of any group. What are the distinctions between, say, Cuban Americans and Mexican-Americans politically in terms of vote?
LESLIE SANCHEZ: Well, Mexican-Americans is really that new swing group, and it's split about 50-50 with foreign-born and U.S.-born. And Mexican-Americans tend to be more socially conservative. I mean our data will tell us that foreign-born immigrants are going to be 7 to 9 percentage points more conservative than U.S.-born Latinos. And actually, we see that the longer that a Latino family is in the United States, the less conservative they become on social issues. But you also see distinctions within, for example, the Cuban-American community, that has a totally different structure and a more Republican-leaning structure within the core of that constituency.
But I want to speak briefly to a point that we just discussed. What's interesting about this in talking about President Bush maybe dropping 1 percentage point is the fact that President Bush, to have tremendous appeal in the 2004 election, only needs to get about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. And that is a very small percentage increase to have such dramatic effects -- versus the Democrats, which had relied on this constituency, not only for the presidency but all the way down ballot and they're really losing something that is really... they're reaping what they've sowed.
TERENCE SMITH: Maria Cardona, we just saw some excerpts from the debate in California. How do you think the Hispanic vote will play in California with Lieutenant Governor Bustamante on the one hand with Arnold Schwarzenegger and other candidates on the other?
MARIA CARDONA: Well, I think that the Latino vote in California will be very significant. And the trends I think that are going on in that race are very interesting. I have seen several polls from public polls to private polls that indicate that Arnold Schwarzenegger has lost very significant support among Latinos, mainly because he basically adopted Pete Wilson's staff and, as you know, Pete Wilson was a governor who supported Proposition 187, which as you know is a very anti-immigrant proposition. And Latinos, there was a huge backlash with Latinos on that, and Latinos understand that, and also Arnold Schwarzenegger himself supported Proposition 187. So I think that, you know, when we're talking about Arnold, it's easy to think in terms of comic books and superheroes. This is going to be his kryptonite. If he continues with supporting 187, Latinos are going to continue to not understand why, and they're going to vote against him. And he cannot win without the support of the Latino vote. And I think Cruz Bustamante as a Latino candidate is going to be able to reap that benefit.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, I'm afraid that we're out of time. So thank you to you both.