Tom Donelson is chairman of Americas PAC and research associate at Americas Majority Foundation. Adam B. Schaeffer is director of research and co-founder of Evolving Strategies.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio's embrace of a bipartisan immigration compromise, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, is the most powerful acknowledgment yet that the Republican Party needs to pay attention to Hispanic voters – and quickly.
Today, nearly one in five Americans is Hispanic, and that percentage is growing all the time, as is the percentage of Hispanic voters who are moving away from the Republican Party. In 2004, Latinos gave 40 percent of their vote to George W. Bush, a decisive factor in his victory over Kerry. But by 2012, Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote – no great surprise, as Gallup revealed throughout that year that only 13 percent of Hispanics self-identified as Republicans.
Given this alarming trend, do conservative candidates have any hope of shifting Hispanic voters their way? And can conservatives actually move voters with ads focused on core conservative issues, rather than immigration reform?
¡Sí, se puede! Contrary to what most focus groups would suggest, Hispanic ad viewers don't want a Republican candidate to play down her conservatism; they want her to shout it from the rooftops.
We ran a PocketTrial online survey experiment, a randomized, controlled trial exposing more than 1,760 Spanish-fluent Hispanic citizens to either a control group or to one of six conservative messages on taxes, spending, abortion, education, or gun control. We presented the messages and then asked the respondents about their support for Republican policies and trust in the party on a range of social and economic issues.
Among Hispanic voters, our Partisan Business Taxes ad – which explicitly blames Democratic city governments for overregulating small businesses – boosts trust in Republicans by six points on the issue of government spending, and costs the Democrats six points, a 12-point swing. Fiscal conservatism among Hispanics is alive and well, it seems, and partisan arguments redound to Republicans' benefit.
Though Hispanic voters are far more socially conservative than their party identifications suggest, Republicans nonetheless face a serious trust deficit among them. 25 percent of our respondents in the control group oppose abortion under any circumstances, but they trust Democrats over Republicans on the issue by a margin of 36 to 30 percent. If Republicans can't win pro-life Hispanics on abortion itself, they have real problems.
Many libertarians in the conservative coalition argue that in order for the GOP to win elections, it needs to tack left on social issues. But among Hispanic swing voters, we discovered that the truth is closer to the opposite: Socially conservative appeals can make people more likely to trust the GOP on economic issues.
Our Partisan Abortion ad made 5 percent of all respondents more likely to trust Republicans than Democrats on taxes and spending. Swing voters are, of course, consistently more amenable to persuasion than voters as a whole. And among Hispanic swing voters, the Partisan Abortion ad boosted trust in Republicans on taxes by nine points, on spending by eight points, and on education by seven points.
We found little evidence that these ads caused any negative backlash, with one important exception: A Non-Partisan Education ad benefits Democrats more than Republicans. Our Partisan Education ad cost Democrats six points of support among swing voters, while increasing Republican support by eight points. But when you take out the partisan identifications, the ads no longer work for Republicans. Democrats could "own" the education issue too solidly for a non-partisan reform message to work, and without partisan cues assigning blame or praise, education ads may simply benefit Democrats.
Yet even that exception proves the rule: The more clearly partisan an ad is, the more likely it is to influence its targets on trust and voting preferences. Among swing voters, our Non-Partisan Abortion ad dragged down support for Democrats by seven points, while our Partisan Abortion ad boosted support for Republican candidates by a remarkable 10 points.
The bottom line is that in order to win elections, Republican candidates must make passionate arguments in favor of their policies, emphasizing that Democrats are causing the problems they offer to solve. In approaching the Hispanic population, Republicans shouldn't run from accusations that they're socially conservative. They should explain how strong family values animate their belief in small business and free markets.
And across the board, Republicans should remember that Hispanic voters will give them no credit for shying away from a fight. As the old saying goes, fortune favors the bold.
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