A Republican Primer on Latino Voters

With the Iowa primary less than two weeks away, Republican chatter on vice presidential candidates has amped up. Of particular interest to the Republican Party are Hispanic candidates that can attract Latino voters and reverse the damage done by a xenophobic primary season.

Florida's Senator Rubio, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval have been mentioned as possibilities, with Rubio receiving the most attention. Yet all three have been faulted by Hispanics for taking anti-immigration positions.

More recently, Governor Luis Fortuño of Puerto Rico has been added to the list of vice presidential contenders. Touted as an effective fiscal and social conservative, he believes that a hostile anti-immigration stance is unreasonable and damaging to the Party.

This form of political name-dropping is disturbing because it indicates how little Republicans leaders know about the fastest-growing voting bloc in the nation. If Republicans are serious about expanding their Latino base in 2012, they need to rid themselves of several misconceptions.

First, Latinos will not vote for a candidate just because he is one of their own. The candidate has to deliver on the issues.

The two issues that matter the most to Hispanics are jobs and immigration. According to a recent Univision News/Latino Decision survey, a candidate's ability to fix the economy and generate jobs is by far the most important factor in deciding for whom to vote. However, 59 percent of the Hispanics surveyed are less likely to support a candidate who makes anti-immigration statements, even if they agree with him on the economy. Moreover, the majority of Latino respondents support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

So far the Republican Party has not produced an economic blueprint that resonates with the majority of Hispanics and all presidential candidates have managed to make amnesty sound like a dirty word. To win over Hispanic voters, Republicans need to do more than put a Hispanic surname on the ticket.

Second, another common misconception is that Latinos should vote Republican because they share traditional social values. This is not entirely accurate, because Hispanics are not conservative across the board. According to a Latino Decisions survey, Latinos are slightly more conservative than the general public on abortion but are more liberal on same-sex marriage. Moreover, Latinos are church goers but they are not value voters: 53 percent say their religion has no impact on their vote and only 14 percent believe that politics are about moral issues.

Third, enlisting a Hispanic vice president could improve Republican chances of expanding their Latino base but only at the margin. Among the possible candidates, Governor Fortuño stands the better chance of winning over new voters.

There are 4.6 million Puerto Ricans residing in the mainland. For them, immigration reform is a preference but not a priority because Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens. They mostly trend Democrat, but they would give the Republican ticket a second look if they saw a Puerto Rican in it.

The 848,000 Puerto Ricans who live in Florida, popularly known as Disneyricans, might be more receptive to a conservative pitch from Governor Fortuño. Disneyricans are considered independents, having voted for Obama in 2008 and for Rubio in 2010. Over 40 percent of them moved from Puerto Rico during the last decade, primarily for economic reasons.

Ironically, as governor of a U.S. territory, Fortuño is the ultimate outsider and unlikely to be nominated. If he were, he may have an edge over Marco Rubio who, as a Latino, mostly appeals to the Cuban Americans who are already part of the Republican base.

Puerto Ricans are the second largest Hispanic voting bloc but they are no match for the Mexican-American community. There are 23 million Mexican American citizens in this country and they are the ones Republicans should be concerned about. After months of immigrant bashing, they will not be easily mollified by political window dressing.

According to the Pew Research Center, 43 percent of Republicans favor tightening the border and enforcing immigration laws and 14 percent favor creating a path to citizenship. However, 41 percent of them believe that both policy approaches should be a priority. This is not an insignificant number, and one which Republicans need to exploit if they are serious about readjusting their overall position on immigration and making some gains among Hispanic voters.

If the Republican Party is determined to make inroads with Latino voters, it has to be willing to engage in a credible immigration reform process. Equally important, it must come to terms with its tolerance of radical views that make minorities feel exceedingly unwelcome -- from Birthers to presidential candidates that talk glibly about electrified border fences and everything in between. The upcoming primaries will tell if it is too late for a turn around. And if it is, Republicans might have just fenced themselves out of the next election.