At a luncheon here earlier this week, waiters passed mojitos to convention delegates wearing American flag pins and chatting in Spanish. The atmosphere was festive but the underlying message was deadly serious – the Republican Party had better start winning over Hispanic voters, or else.
“The numbers are clear,” said Jeb Bush Jr., the younger son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush. “If we don’t start paying attention to these trend lines, we’re going to have a serious problem. Can you imagine Texas being a blue state?”
The idea of Texas going blue – the colour of the Democratic Party – in a presidential race is enough to make the toughest Republican lose sleep. The party’s leaders know that perhaps their biggest challenge in November and beyond is the fact that on the whole, the fastest-growing segment of American voters doesn’t seem to like them very much.
Convention organizers are doing everything they can to showcase Latinos in primetime roles.
On Wednesday, Susana Martinez, the Republican governor of New Mexico, spoke just before Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential nominee. And on Thursday night, Florida Senator Marco Rubio introduced Mitt Romney ahead of his acceptance speech.
The prominent speaking roles are part of a strategy to reach out to Latino voters. Behind the scenes there are new conservative organizations to mobilize the Hispanic electorate. And there is a plea from some in the party to adopt a less hostile stand on issues related to immigration.
The junior Mr. Bush, 29, whose mother was born in Mexico, chairs a conservative advocacy group reaching out to Hispanics in Florida. “The bottom line is, it’s a question of tone as relates to immigration,” he said in an interview. “We need to change our tone [and] be a big-tent party.”
His grandfather, former president George H.W. Bush, once memorably referred to him and his siblings as “the little brown ones.” But his uncle and father have arguably done more than any previous Republican politicians to change the perception of the party in the Hispanic community. In 2004, president George W. Bush received 44 per cent of the Hispanic vote, a modern record for a Republican presidential candidate, according to the Pew Research Center.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, 59, speaks fluent Spanish and has repeatedly slammed anti-immigrant rhetoric by Republicans. Reaching out to Hispanics in a way that is “open and hospitable,” he said at the luncheon, was the future of the party. Latinos will play a key role in advancing the conservative cause, he added, “if we just stop acting stupid.”
It will be an uphill battle. Polls show that President Barack Obama has a large lead among Latinos, who prefer him to Mr. Romney by a margin of 2 to 1. In 2008, John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, won 31 per cent of Hispanic votes. Democrats say that Republican visions of wooing large numbers of Latino voters in national elections are nothing but a fantasy.
According to the most recent census, there are just over 50 million people of Hispanic origin in the United States, or 16 per cent of the population. But their numbers are increasing rapidly – between 2000 and 2010 the group grew four times faster than the overall population – and that is translating into growing heft at the ballot box.
Appealing to the Hispanic community goes far beyond the issue of immigration. Ms. Martinez pointed out at the Tampa event that the Republican party must make Latinos “constantly part of the process and not just right before elections.”
Some say the party needs to take its pitch – that Hispanics are actually conservative voters who vote Democratic out of long habit – to places it has long ignored. Justin Murff, the political director of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, a 38-year-old advocacy group, cited his work on a race for the Texas state house in 2008.
He noticed that there were three precincts in the district where the party had not dispatched any representatives for 30 years. When he asked why, the local Republican leadership said, ‘Oh, well, those are the Spanish precincts,’ Mr. Murff recalled.
“So I said, ‘Fantastic. We’re going to go in in Spanish, and we’re going to say, look, you’re pro-faith, you’re pro-family, you’re pro-business. Those are Republican values, go vote for my guy.’ ” His candidate won, Mr. Murff claimed, with help from voters in those precincts.