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The Hispanic Century

Hispanic voters are poised to change American politics—and neither party has sealed the deal

May 4, 2011, 12:00 am

La Lucha

The battle for New Mexico’s Hispanic voters has already begun.

When SFR asked Republican and Democratic party heads what matters to Hispanic voters, the responses were almost identical: jobs, the economy, defending the middle-class.

Such a convergence, particularly in today’s highly polarized political environment, seems laughable—but in fact, it’s logical. According to an April 26 report by the Pew Hispanic Center, in New Mexico, Hispanic voters tend to have lower incomes and less education than white voters. This—combined with the recession—leads to a concerted focus on socioeconomic issues among Hispanic voters.

But according Brian Sanderoff, who heads Albuquerque-based Research & Polling, Inc., New Mexico’s Hispanic voters represent a different slice of the electorate.

“In New Mexico, most Hispanics were born here and are native New Mexicans,” Sanderoff says. 

(According to the Pew Center, 94 percent of New Mexico’s Hispanic voters are natural-born citizens—far above the national average of 74 percent.)

Hispanic voters in New Mexico, like those in other states, tend to vote Democratic when it comes to economic and social welfare issues, Sanderoff says—but on hot-button topics such as immigration, they represent a powerful swing vote.

“In this latest dialogue in New Mexico, the majority of Hispanics opposed driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants,” Sanderoff notes, referring to one of the more contentious issues of New Mexico’s 2011 legislative session. That fact, he says, illustrates how, even as a staunchly conservative Republican, Gov. Susana Martinez was able to attract the Hispanic vote.

Republican Party of New Mexico Executive Director Bryan Watkins says the governorship went Republican in 2010 partly because relatively few Hispanic voters in New Mexico are recent immigrants.

“The folks that have been here longer tend to be more conservative than those who just immigrated,” Watkins says. But in Watkins’ view, they also liked the party’s economic message. 

“Fiscal restraint appeals to Hispanic voters,” Watkins says. “Within the Hispanic community, folks want a smaller government that represents small business owners [and] middle-class, hard-working families.” 

But Javier Gonzales, the chairman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, says there’s been little meaningful movement toward job creation since Martinez took office.

“Susana focused more on divisive issues during this last 60-day [legislative] session, rather than focusing on jobs,” Gonzales says. “Her only focus on jobs was to try to eliminate the tax credit for the film industry.”

Gonzales tells SFR that his strategy for 2012 is to highlight the importance of voting—a point that didn’t come across in 2010, he says, when many Hispanic Democrats stayed home on voting day.

“They just need to look at what has happened over the past three months to know that, when you stay home and you don’t necessarily participate in an election, you can get someone elected to office, even with a Hispanic surname, that certainly does not represent the values that you believe in,” Gonzales says.

But 2012, Sanderoff says, is still up for grabs.

“Holding all things equal, Hispanics are much more likely to vote Democrat than Republican,” Sanderoff says. But, he adds, “When Republicans get their act together, or have got the right message, or when the Democrats are unpopular, then Hispanics will not hesitate to consider the Republican candidate. The Democratic party can no longer take Hispanics for granted.” –Alexa Schirtzinger

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