Recent numbers suggest tone may trump substance on immigration.
Coverage of Hispanic politics in the Anglo media often creates the impression that the dominant political issue among Spanish-speaking Americans is immigration. If you see a Hispanic face on TV arguing about politics, most likely he was invited on to talk about immigration. The media’s focus influences strategists from both political parties who routinely view the key to winning Hispanic voters as championing some form of immigration reform. But is immigration really the main issue of concern for Hispanics?
Not by a long shot. The No.1 issue that Hispanic voters care about is education. That’s according to an extensive poll of likely Hispanic voters conducted by the Tarrance Group and the Mellman Group for Univision. The findings of the Univision Latino Voters Survey suggest that Republicans do have an image problem among most Hispanic voters, but it is not a crushing deficit and there is room for improvement.
Democrats, meanwhile, are more trusted overall, although they are far from beloved. In many respects, the immigration issue is a proxy for “respecting the Hispanic community.” If there are image problems for Republicans among Hispanics, it has more to do with a perceived lack of respect than the details of an immigration policy. Moreover, Republican politicians could make inroads with Hispanic voters if they indicate that they respect the community, and refrain from demonizing immigrants.
In the fall survey, which drew 1,500 participants from California, Texas, Florida, and the Southwest, the top-rated concern among all respondents was “our kids are not getting the quality education they need.” The education issue reached across ideological boundaries -- 36 percent of Republicans, 36 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of swing voters named it as a top concern.
Immigration wasn’t even second on the list of concerns -- two spending issues ranked below education. The second-rated concern: cuts to Medicare, which was a top concern for 35 percent of respondents. At the same time, respondents were also concerned about government spending. A third named it as a top concern.
Government spending – an issue where the GOP traditionally holds an edge -- was even more a concern among Hispanic swing voters. Forty-two percent named it as a top concern, and the numbers were even higher among respondents from Texas and the Southwest – areas where Republicans picked up House seats in 2010.
The other issue that consistently ranked near the top was jobs -- 33 percent of respondents ranked it as one of their top concerns. Everyone is concerned with having good jobs, but this is particularly a concern in the Southwest, where 39 percent of swing voters expressed concern over finding employment.
So which party has the edge with Hispanic voters going into 2012? Some observers believe the GOP could make inroads next year, in part, because Hispanics are assumed to be socially conservative and therefore naturally Republican. If the GOP favored immigration reform, the conventional wisdom goes, Hispanics would vote Republican en masse.
Here too the conventional wisdom is flawed. The 5th ranked concern among all surveyed was “family values are in decline.” While this would sound like evidence of innate social conservatism, it’s a rather vague statement. Who’s for weakening families, after all? A more concrete issue, “there are too many abortions in the US,” ranks 17th out of 21 issues, with 17 percent of respondents rating it as a concern.
Meanwhile, government recognition of gay marriages ranked near the bottom, with only 15 percent ranking it as a concern. These are clearly not the prime motivators of Hispanic voting behavior.
One issue that Hispanics in the aggregate give the edge to Republicans on is national security. Swing voters also give Republicans the edge on abortion and keeping down government spending. Issues related to immigration and “respecting the Hispanic community” is where Hispanics give Democrats the widest advantage over Republicans.
In total, 21 issues were provided to respondents in this survey, five of which related to immigration. The top immigration-related concern among all voters connects to the recent crackdowns in some GOP-led states. “More states are passing anti-Latino immigration laws like Arizona’s,” ranked 10th. That’s right, 10th.
The other four came in at 14th, 15th, 16th and 19th. And one of these concerns was “illegal immigration is out of control,” which 17 percent said was one of their top concerns. Swing voters showed even less interest in immigration issues.
Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
A version of this post was also published on Smart Media Group’s blog, Smart Blog.