Photo: Courtesy of Bettina Inclan
30-two years ago, as Ronald Reagan built his campaign for a presidential run, he told a top adviser to expect an easy job.“Latinos are Republican,” he told Lionel Sosa, the man who would lead his outreach effort. “They just don’t know it yet.”
Fast-forward 32 years later. They still don’t know it yet.
This is the Republican Party’s Latino problem in a nutshell: In a February poll of 1,200 likely Latino voters — before Mitt Romney just about wrapped up the Republican nomination — Fox News found that if the election were held on that date, 70 per cent would vote for Obama. Only 14 per cent picked Romney.
“We share core conservative values,” Sosa said in a phone interview last week. “But if you’re a candidate, you have got to come out and say that in an effective way that reaches the emotions. There hasn’t really been someone like that yet.”
Enter Bettina Inclan, the Republican National Committee’s first national Director of Hispanic Outreach. She will be tasked with perhaps the toughest job in the party in this 2012 election season— winning over Hispanic voters to a party that, fair or unfair, doesn’t have the best reputation with them. That’s not to say they can’t be won over.
“I would even say that Democrats think Hispanics are very conservative voters on many issues,” Inclan said.
The Republican Party, Inclan said, will embark on a political strategy it has never had before with the Latino demographic.
It starts with the party’s organisation: It has launched an expanded social media outreach program. The committee began a bilingual mobile messaging campaign and started airing Spanish-language radio and television ads. And in addition to Inclan, the RNC has hired new outreach directors in six key battleground states: Florida, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a small Congressional race, a state race or a national race,” Inclan said. “You have to look at the Hispanic population as an important factor of how you’re going to have an effective ‘Get Out The Vote’ operation.
“You also have to understand that each of these places is very different. … making sure how you connect with different populations. Just because they have the title ‘Hispanic voter’ does not mean they are going to have everything in common.”
Inclan carries with her the heritage of a Mexican father and Cuban mother. She grew up with a grandfather who had been a political prisoner in Cuba for years, and conversation about politics and the role of government always popped up at the dinner table. Most of her family are Ronald Reagan conservatives.
“I was never pressured to be a Republican, but I am very much a fiscal conservative,” she said. “It might be because we were always on a very tight budget growing up. Or maybe my views of the world fall in line with the Republican Party.”
But Hispanic voters, in general, have shunned the Republican Party time and time again since Reagan first predicted the shift. In 1980, only 37 per cent of Hispanic voters opted for Reagan. The next seven elections of Hispanic voters picking the Republican Party: 34 (Reagan again), 30 (H.W. Bush), 25 (H.W. Bush again), 21 (Dole), 35 (Bush), 44 (Bush), and 31 per cent (McCain).
Inclan thinks there is a particular opportunity for the party to get its message across to young Latino voters — 500,000 of whom, she said, will turn 18 this year and be eligible to vote. Her aim to reverse history starts with the politically unbound. She takes this approach because of examples she finds across the country — like with one younger voter in Chicago recently.
“She said, ‘You know what? My mum and grandma were Democrats, and that’s what I thought I had to be. But when I started reading about the issues, I realised that I was a Republican,'” Inclan said.
And that story is seen even in the examples of some of the nation’s highest elected officials. Susana Martinez was a registered Democrat before 1995. Now, she’s the conservative Republican Governor of New Mexico that’s being thrown around as a potential vice presidential candidate. And she is America’s first Latina governor.
For Martinez, it was also a “moment” of realisation that led to her Republican conversion.
“I think the more we talk about the issues and the more we have Republicans going into local communities and saying, ‘This is what Republicans believe in. This is what Democrats believe in,’ Hispanics are going to make decisions for themselves,” Inclan said.
But some of the key issues, incidentally, are what presents the challenge for Inclan and the rest of the Republican Party in this election in reaching out to Hispanic voters. It goes back to what she said earlier — that Hispanics agree with conservatives and Republicans on many issues.
But it’s different for Romney’s contentious hard-line stance on granting any kind of amnesty for the approximately 11.2 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States (that figure according to the Pew Hispanic centre).
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flikr
At the same time, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is championing planned legislation that is Republicans’ answer to the Democrat-pushed DREAM Act. Rubio, by the way, is among the front-runners to be named Romney’s running mate and is seen as the GOP’s star hope to appeal to Hispanic voters from the biggest potential platform.Romney promised in December that he would veto the DREAM Act if it ever popped up on his desk as president. Now he faces a predicament: On one hand, he can walk the tightrope of supporting Rubio’s proposal and risk being prone to charges of flip-flopping and playing politics. Or he can distance himself from Rubio and, likely, more Latino voters.
“This is a litmus-test issue for Latinos,” said Rafael Collazo, the director for political campaigns for the civic engagement department at the National Council of La Raza, which describes itself as the largest national Latino civil rights and advocacy organisation.
“Are you addressing an issue that affects Latinos regardless of your citizenship status or legal status in a way that is respectful of our community and is trying to develop a comprehensive policy solution to the issue? Because we all agree that it’s an issue we have to address on a federal level, because it is a broken immigration system.”
Immigration, of course, isn’t the only issue that will resonate with Latino voters. First and foremost, like any demographic, is the economy. That is where Inclan and Republicans will hit the hardest. They will point out statistics that unemployment, foreclosure and poverty rates are all higher among Hispanics than the general population. They will target Gallup research that shows even more Hispanics do not have health care than when Obama took office.
Inclan and the state director’s approach will attempt to highlight these numbers and dip President Obama’s approval rating even further among Hispanics, which hit a new low in December.
Inclan’s approach involves community leaders adopting a neighbourhood approach, with everything from town halls to house meetings. And she stresses the communication outreach effort, providing content in multiple ways and in an “aggressive bilingual” manner for the most optimal connection with voters.
“At some point soon, the Latino population is going to get so huge that without a good percentage of the Latino vote in key states, any candidate is going to lose, whether they’re Republican or whether they’re Democrat,” said Sosa, the former Reagan adviser who has also worked in seven presidential campaigns.
How important is Bettina Inclan to the Republican strategy? When Inclan interviewed for the position, RNC Political Director Rick Wiley made clear that the party wanted someone to not only build an effort that could last for generations, but also someone that could start right away.
On Dec. 23, Inclan got engaged. Right after the turn of the new year, new job in hand, she moved to Washington.
“I was like, ‘Love you,'” she said. “‘But I’m moving to D.C.'”
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