Hispanic Voters Affect California Elections
By Bill Schneider/CNN
LOS ANGELES (Jan. 13) -- In 1996, according to a study just released, two-thirds of newly registered Hispanics turned out to vote in California.
That's an extraordinary figure. It means that new Hispanic voters turned out at a higher rate than other Californians. It means that powerful forces are mobilizing the Hispanic constituency. And it means big trouble for the Republicans.
What's behind the surge of Hispanic voting in California? There are three factors:
One is immigration reform, which gave amnesty to large numbers of undocumented aliens and allowed them to become citizens. That's exactly what they've been doing, aided by a big push from the White House to speed up the naturalization process.
Two, fear. Congress took benefits away from legal immigrants. President Bill Clinton promised to work to reverse the cutoffs.
"I am convinced this never would have passed alone, and I am convinced when we send legislation to Congress to correct it, it will be corrected," Clinton said.
The threat of losing benefits drove legal immigrants to become citizens and to register and vote Democratic, in protest against the Republican Congress.
The result was a surge of Hispanic turnout and Democratic voting across the country. Hispanics were the only group whose turnout went up in 1996.
Clinton's support among Hispanics nationwide jumped from 61 to 72 percent.
The third factor was specific to California: Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. Wilson got re-elected in 1994 by embracing Proposition 187, a law cutting off benefits to illegal immigrants. He won, but at the cost of creating bitter resentment among Hispanics.
The resentment wasn't justified, says Wilson. "[Proposition] 187 was painted in very false colors by those who sought to equate legal and illegal immigration, and to equate both with racism," he said.
But California Hispanics were enraged by a law that cut off health care and education for children and by a harsh and inflammatory campaign they felt was targeted at them.
During the 1980s, Republican support among California Hispanics had been rising. That trend abruptly reversed in 1994.
Republican consultant Stuart Spencer wrote a memorandum warning his fellow California Republicans that their party risks "political suicide and dooms itself to permanent minority status in California" if it does not reach out to Hispanic voters.
Republicans made the mistake of alienating immigrant voters earlier in this century and paid dearly for it, turning big states like New York and Massachusetts into Democratic strongholds.
Some Republicans have gotten the message. Texas Gov. George W. Bush opposed Proposition 187 and has maintained good relations with Hispanic voters in his state. He even speaks fluent Spanish, very smart in a state where Hispanics are approaching 20 percent of the voters.
Both Gov. Bush and the White House have gotten the message. The issue that's mobilizing new immigrant voters isn't economics or family values. It's racial insensitivity. And it's the biggest danger Republicans face whenever they talk about immigration or affirmative action.