Can Bush carry California?

He'll need the support of Latinos, but his campaign is giving mixed signals about how hard it plans to fight.

Published March 13, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

After surviving a bruising primary battle with Arizona Sen. John McCain, Texas Gov. George W. Bush faces the biggest challenge of his campaign in the state of California. Though it has become a Democratic stronghold in recent years, Bush's best, and maybe only, hope of prying the Golden State away from Al Gore may rest with Latinos.

But now that money has become an issue for Bush -- the Washington Post reported that the campaign has less than $6 million on hand -- there are new concerns among Republicans here that Bush may not launch a vigorous campaign in California. When he unveiled his education plan to Latino business leaders last year, he told them that with Texas and Florida likely to go his way in November, if he carries California, "es todo." But during his recent California swing, Bush conceded that the state "was going to be tough," and that getting the Latino vote in California would take a lot of work, and a lot of money.

Recent primary exit polls placed Bush's share of the Latino vote at roughly 20 percent, but a February poll from the Public Policy Institute of California had Bush winning roughly one-third of the Latino vote in a head-to-head matchup with Gore.

That may be all the Republicans need. If Bush can hold that 35 percent, it would be great news for the GOP. Republican leaders have long held 30 percent to 35 percent of the Latino vote as their goal. They cite Reagan's ability to carry 40 percent of Latinos in 1984 as evidence that it is possible. The problem has been that massive increases in Latino registration throughout the 1990s have favored Democrats, while the number of Republican Hispanics has remained stagnant.

GOP gubernatorial candidates Dan Lungren and Pete Wilson received roughly the same number of votes from Latinos. In 1998 Lungren's percentages were stuck below 20, while Wilson pulled in the mid-30s earlier in the decade. Now, the conventional wisdom is that no Republican can win California without at least 30 percent of the Latino vote.

"Republicans really have to lower their expectations in term of how well they can do in this election," said Mark Baldassare, survey director of the Public Policy Institute of California. "Only 22 percent of Latinos are registered Republican. Getting one-third of the vote would be a pretty incredible coup."

Baldassare said if Bush decides California can't be won, it could be an ominous sign. "I had my research assistant go back and look at all of the presidential elections from the last century," he said. "In 22 of 25 elections, the person who won in California went on to be president, and no Republican was elected president without carrying California." Only Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Richard Nixon in 1960 and Gerald Ford in 1976 have carried California but lost the White House.

That would explain the full-court press that both the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee have put on Latinos here. During the primary season, Bush became the first Republican presidential candidate in history to run Spanish-language television ads during a GOP primary. The Republican National Committee launched an ad that is airing in Texas, focusing on tradition, family and patriotism. But the Latino electorate in California is younger and more partisan, and the RNC is expected to wheel out a new spot this spring focusing on the values of independence.

According to a new survey commissioned by the RNC, Republicans get an automatic 20 percent of the Latino vote, while Democrats get close to 50 percent. The new ads, and the Bush campaign, will focus on that growing 30 percent that is increasingly up for grabs.

That survey did hold some good news for the GOP, but it may take another couple of political cycles to translate into positive results. The survey found that, unlike African-American voters, Latino voters are no more loyal to political parties than the rest of the electorate. Increasingly, despite the sharp up-tick in Democratic registration among Latinos in California, the Hispanic electorate nationwide tends to be issue-driven and independent, with education routinely topping the list of priorities, just as it does with the rest of California and Texas voters.

It's hard to know which came first, Bush's strong record on education or his attempt to make it a central piece of his campaign, but the two have reinforced each other, and have led to Bush's strong Latino support in Texas. But in California, Latinos tend to be a bit more partisan, after the wars over immigration that were fought at the ballot box here during the 1990s.

"What we're doing is letting Hispanics know that Gov. Bush is a new kind of Republican," said Sonia Colin Martinez, Bush's spokeswoman to the Spanish-speaking media. "I am responsible for helping deliver the message in English and in Spanish that he was able to work with Democratic legislators, and that he is broadening the base of the Republican Party."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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California George W. Bush Texas