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Don't pigeonhole Hispanic voters

By Leslie Sanchez, Special to CNN
  • Leslie Sanchez says some have an oversimplified view of Hispanic voters as Democrats
  • Large numbers have voted Republican in past elections, Sanchez says
  • She says many Latinos are open to ideas about issues such as education and the economy
  • Sanchez: There's growing skepticism about effect of Obama administration policies

Editor's note: Leslie Sanchez, former director of the White House Initiative on Hispanic Education from 2001-2003, is owner of the Hispanic communications research firm Impacto Group LLC. She is a board member of Resurgent Republic and author of the book "Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other."

Washington (CNN) -- There have been a number of stories recently about California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, her former housekeeper (an illegal immigrant) and the possible electoral fallout.

Politico wrote Tuesday that the so-called "maid flap" has hurt Whitman with Hispanic voters, citing data from pollster Scott Rasmussen that indicates "minority voters are heavily leaning toward Democrats this election cycle, with African-Americans leaning heavily in that direction."

It's not exactly news that minority voters overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates -- in California and across the country. President Obama's approval rating among black Americans is 91 percent, according to the most recent polls. His support among Hispanics, according to the Gallup Poll, is at 55 percent which, while not as impressive, is still pretty high. In fact, I would expect to see a sizable majority of the Hispanic vote go to Democratic candidates this year, as in previous elections.

But the Hispanic electorate, like the American electorate overall, is not homogeneous. As a new survey released this week by the Pew Hispanic Center reports, 62 percent of Latino registered voters say they identify with (or lean toward) the Democratic Party, while 25 percent identify as (or lean) Republican.

This reflects a relatively consistent trend, nationally speaking -- but with some notable exceptions, especially President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign in which he won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Also, as Pew has pointed out previously, state elections sometimes buck national trends. In 2006, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, won re-election with 39 percent of the Hispanic vote, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, was re-elected with 44 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Further, it needs to be pointed out that Hispanics don't have "their own issues." The issues that matter to Hispanic voters mirror those of the electorate overall. As the new Pew study reports, Latino voters rank education, jobs and health care as their top issues this year, with nearly 60 percent saying that education is extremely important to them personally.

So to suggest that Latino voters are going to be swayed in large numbers by an issue such as one housekeeper's immigration status is -- once again -- to simplify and generalize the Hispanic vote.

Immigration policy doesn't even rank as one of the top issues of concern to Hispanic registered voters this year -- coming in at No. 5 (behind education, jobs, health care and the federal budget deficit), according to Pew. As an aside, it wouldn't hurt if the Spanish-language media would focus on these issues, rather than devoting so much time to sideshow dramas.

It's also worth noting a growing skepticism among Latinos about Obama's policies and the effect they're having on the Hispanic community. More than half of those surveyed by Pew say the administration's policies have had no effect on Latinos, with only about a quarter saying they've been helpful. And that's not the only enthusiasm gap: Hispanic Republicans may be more motivated than their Democratic counterparts and may be more likely to turn out and vote.

Nearly half the Hispanic Republicans interviewed by Pew, 44 percent, say they've given the election quite a lot of thought. Only 28 percent of Latino Democrats could say the same. It's already clear as a general proposition that, in this election, intensity matters.

Whitman's (or any candidate's) support, or lack thereof, among Hispanics is not tied to this one sensational story. Her chances depend on an inclusive campaign that welcomes Latinos to the conversation as well as her ability to convince all voters that she can turn around the economy (particularly abysmal in California) and reform the education system. That's where Whitman should focus her energy.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Leslie Sanchez.