C&E: How does the Republican Party improve its outreach to Latino voters?    

Martinez: Well, just think about the word party. It can be a political party obviously, but it also means something that’s a celebration. For a celebration, you have to invite more guests. If you stay with only the ones you’ve got, guess what? There’s no way of winning. All of a sudden this feels a lot like 2007 all over again when the Republicans were trying to out-Tancredo [former Rep.] Tom Tancredo on immigration. The only one who said, “No, I’m not going that route” was John McCain. And McCain won the nomination. Republicans need to understand—you cannot win without 40 percent of the Latino vote. You just can’t get into the White House without it and you have to start making an effort early.

Back in 2000, Bush made a huge effort. I remember being at the Iowa straw poll doing Latino outreach for Bush. We shot video and did some interviews to send to some of the smaller Latino stations across the country. We were sending the signal that this guy understands that Latinos are a big part of the future of the country.   

C&E: Looking at the Republican field right now, is there a candidate who you think understands that?

Martinez: I think Rick Perry does, but of course I’m from Texas and I worked with him on his 2002 campaign. Just look at what he did during that debate hosted by CNN and the Tea Party. They were criticizing him because he gave in-state tuition to sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants. But he stood up for his decision and he stood by it. The audience there didn’t like it, but Latinos will be listening to that. Fifty percent of the population growth in this country is coming from Latinos. If you want to win the White House you have to be practical and also understand that the future is with those voters. If you don’t talk to them, I just don’t see how you can win. And when you do the numbers, it’s really about common sense. President Obama has not fulfilled a lot of promises that he had for Latinos in 2008, so that vote is up for grabs. But if you alienate them, they’ll just stay home.

C&E: Is immigration reform the greatest impediment for Republicans? Are they playing too much to the base?

Martinez: I worked on Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor in California last year and in the primary she had to go too far to the right. [Her primary opponent] was forcing her in that direction on immigration. But once she won the primary, she was able to bring it back. As soon as the general election started, we did an ad that showed she didn’t agree with the Arizona [immigration] law or Proposition 187, which was very anti-immigrant in California. Then came Nannygate, which wasn’t a good thing.

But I think it’s important to know that Hispanics are not only about immigration. I remember doing focus groups in California and the most important issues were jobs, the economy and education. Immigration was way down there. What really hurts is the undertone of the immigration debate. When you get the anti-immigrant rhetoric, that’s when it strikes a chord in the voter’s mind and they think, “Maybe you really don’t want my support.” Perry comes from a state where he understands that reality and he understands the numbers. It’s more difficult for someone like Michele Bachmann to get that.

C&E: What advice would you give the Republican presidential candidates right now?

Martinez: First and foremost, I would tell them that it’s a mistake to think the immigration issue is the most important issue to all Latinos. But still understand that many of them are looking at what the undertone of the campaign is on immigration. What’s the dialogue like? Even if it’s not their most important issue, they’ll be listening to the rhetoric and the rhetoric can affect the direction they go in. It’s a fine line.

I remember a debate in New Hampshire back in 2007 where a lady was yelling at McCain about immigration—he was getting eaten alive in some of those town hall meetings—and he said to her, “I’m not going to call a soldier fighting in Iraq and tell him I’m going to deport his mother.” That’s how to handle it. Someone needs to do that this time—someone needs to grab these voters and say, “I’m a different type of guy. I understand that you’re part of this country of immigrants.” If you change the conversation and understand that Latinos aren’t just about immigration, but they’re about jobs and education, too, then you might be able to separate yourself from the rest of the candidates that way. 

C&E: Obama’s numbers among Latinos have dropped. How big might the opening be for the Republican nominee next year? 

Martinez: Just look at the unemployment numbers for Latinos—they’re in the double digits. There are a lot of Latinos who realize Obama didn’t deliver on his promises. I remember when we went to Illinois in 2008 to look into Obama’s record on Latino issues. It was interesting to see that he didn’t have a huge record and Latinos didn’t have a big connection with him. They had a huge connection with Hillary, though, that’s for sure. Not the same with Obama. I think that’s why he came to El Paso a couple of months ago and said he was going to revive the immigration issue. He hasn’t done anything since. I think it might have just been bait because right away Republicans started attacking him and the heated rhetoric on immigration started back up again. He knows that if Republicans don’t open their arms, Latinos aren’t going anywhere.

C&E: What do we know about the messages or types of appeals that work or don’t work with Latino voters?

Martinez: Well, negative campaigning didn’t work very well last time with McCain. We didn’t have the money Obama had, so we went into attack mode and I don’t think we had enough time to tell the Latino story that McCain had to tell. A lot of voters might want to get down to business right away and talk about the issues. But for Latinos, we like to sit down first at the table and talk about our families and get to know each other. Then we talk business. Candidates need to talk with us about who we are and what our values are before trying to win our vote. We did that with Bush in 2000 and his nephew George P. Bush was very helpful with that. It’s not every election that you have the opportunity to have a nephew with you who speaks Spanish and looks like Ricky Martin helping you get out the vote. It’s that type of connection that’s important. Media-wise, TV has been king. Radio is important, too, and online is going to be very important. My son is turning 18 next year and he doesn’t consume Spanish media even though we talk in Spanish at home. He watches Jon Stewart and Colbert. So the dynamics constantly change and assuming that a radio or TV campaign a few weeks before the election will work is a mistake.

C&E: Do you think Republicans will ultimately get the message or is there a concern about alienating Latino voters for the long term?

Martinez: This is a winnable election. Look at President Obama’s poll numbers. This really is a winnable election. But this might be the last call for Republicans with Latinos. If you don’t really understand and grab this opportunity, then when are you going to do it? That’s the real question. What are you waiting for? Are you waiting for 2016? For the general election, I think everybody’s going to be knocking on Marco Rubio’s door, that’s for sure. Everybody’s going to be looking at Susana Martinez in New Mexico and Brian Sandoval in Nevada. That’s one way to say to Latino voters that we’re taking this very seriously—put one of them on the ticket. Three of the states that are going to be toss-ups have big Latino populations. We have to understand that this could be the game changer.