I’ve got a message for the eventual GOP presidential nominee, and I’m not taking sides on this one. Whether your name is Mitt, Newt, Rick or Ron, there’s one question you have to answer if you want to be in the nation’s driver’s seat: How on earth am I going to park the Party of Lincoln in the White House without winning 40 percent or more of the Latino vote?
Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are yesterday’s news and now we’re looking to Arizona and the southwest, states that offer a good test drive on the road toward winning the Latino vote. Republicans should realize that there’s still a chance to win the Latino vote if they act now, and that's largely because President Obama has not delivered.
The president made plenty of promises to Latinos, but has fallen short when it comes to results. It starts with the economy -- our unemployment number is still around 10.5 percent. His "first year in office” immigration reform plan never made it out of the gate, but it’s still likely to show up on the campaign trail as a second-term promise this fall. The Obama administration has also deported more undocumented immigrants than any other, and Latinos are paying attention.
For the Republican candidates, I'll start by repeating the advice I've given time and again: don't steer too far to the right. Heading too far in the direction of the Tea Party will make it tough to keep the wheel straight in a general election against Obama. With that in mind I've put together an individual strategy session for each of the reamining Republican hopefuls. Let's hope they listen.
To Mitt Romney: Why is former governor Pete Wilson chairing your campaign in California? And why is one of the architects of the Arizona immigration law, Kris Kobach, serving as an adviser? Both are toxic to Latino voters. I can already picture the Spanish-language ads Democrats will produce for the general election attacking you for those connections. Trust me. I saw those ads in California when I was working on Meg Whitman’s gubernatorial campaign last cycle. She made an effort to win the Latino vote, but the Wilson brand was a hard one to remove. Also, don’t avoid discussing the fact that your father was born in Mexico.
To Newt Gingrich: You have the Latino record. Use it and keep using it. Don’t let your opponents take it from you like Romney did in Florida. Your Latino outreach goes back a long way. It’s time to “double down" as columnist Ruben Navarrete said. Go rápido to Arizona, California and Texas and say, "Mi casa también es su casa."
To Rick Santorum: You’ve got some work to do, but don’t worry. Even though you’re from Pennsylvania, the Hispanic population grew by more than 80 percent in that state between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. Census numbers. So you might find some good supporters if you look around that state. You’re a family man and a person of faith and hard work—just like many Latinos in the U.S. If you actually look for ways to connect with Latino voters, it will pay off.
To Ron Paul: You are the only candidate still in this race from Texas where Latinos make up 37 percent of the population. You also have a huge following among young voters. So start talking to Latinos and keep in mind that 40,000 U.S. born Latino kids turn 18 every month.
Most importantly, here’s some advice for the Republican Party generally. Your champion, Ronald Reagan, understood Latinos as governor of California. Take note of what Reagan told adviser Lionel Sosa during his reelection bid in 1984: “Remind Latinos that they are Republicans, they just don’t know it yet.” Latinos are conservative, faithful, anti-big government, patriotic, and have strong family values. Sound familiar?
Former President George H.W. Bush promoted NAFTA, and Bush 43 fought hard for immigration reform. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was a great champion of Latino outreach during his campaigns and his time as governor. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval are great stories to tell, as is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Bring all of them into your everyday conversations with voters.
Finally, recognize that the president has not focused enough on our neighbors to the south. This is a chance to connect with the first generation Latino vote. Keep in mind that naturalized citizens are still connected with their country of birth, and there’s an entire continent of emerging economies that we could be doing business with. Our neighbors in Mexico need our support in the drug war they are fighting. We of course need to secure our border, but Mexico is no longer a “distant neighbor.” It continues to be one of our largest trading partners.
Further south, crazies like Hugo Chavez are getting more popular, not to mention that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been driving through the neighborhood lately—and the U.S. hasn’t. We need to support the new emerging opposition in Venezuela. After a recent primary election there, the Chavez opposition is unifying behind Henrique Capriles. Republicans -- throw out his name in a debate or on the campaign trail. It might get you some bonus points.
It’s time to lock down the Latino vote, because the GOP needs the support of the largest minority in the United States. Winning the White House is impossible without their vote.
Cesar Martinez is president of MAS Consulting. Martinez headed up Hispanic media efforts for former President George W. Bush's two national campaigns, and for Sen. John McCain's 2008 race.