Why Are Latinos Turning to Whitman?

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Why are Latino voters shifting their allegiances toward Meg Whitman? A new Field poll out today shows a tie race between the Republican and Democratic nominee Jerry Brown. Whitman has gained traction among Latino voters -- Brown leads by only 11 points with that demographic -- to a degree that has taken many Democratic analysts by surprise. They comfort themselves with assumptions: that once Latinos find out that Whitman's campaign is chaired by Pete Wilson, the Republican governor whose name is synonymous with the anti-immigration Proposition 187, they'll reject her and go back to Brown. Or, once they figure out that Whitman supports the GOP party line on immigration, they'll associate her with nativism and racism and go back to Brown. Or maybe it's a statistical blip.

It's probably not a blip, and so it is an inversion of conventional wisdom. It may simply be a consequence of very effective and narrow targeting of Whitman's anti-immigration primary media. It may be that the $91 million she's spent so far has lifted her standing with everyone. It may well be that associating with Wilson used to be an unforgivable sin, but it no longer is. Whitman's campaign has done field outreach to Latino leaders, acknowledging their differences on immigration. With a few exceptions, her tone has been conciliatory. Her gender helps. It's generally easier for a woman to talk about immigration without seeming scary than a man ... something that political consultants exploit.

Nothing Whitman does stands on its own merits; it is inevitably compared to the way her fellow businesswoman and state running mate Carly Fiorina approaches an issue. Where Fiorina endorsed Arizona's new immigration law on the grounds that the federal government was failing to do its job, Whitman ran ads touting her support for tough border enforcement and her opposition to amnesty. (Amnesty isn't defined; it almost never is.) Notably, the ads featured Pete Wilson. They were targeted at audiences in white, affluent areas, though they received plenty of media attention.

At the same time, however, Whitman has begun to advertise heavily on Spanish-language television stations. She says she opposes the Arizona law and opposed Prop 187. She's trying to take advantage of what her campaign perceives to be an opening: Democrats assume that Latinos won't vote for Republicans because the GOP's utterings on immigration have been noxious. So the national Democratic strategy appears to be one that plays on the fears of Latinos, one that tries to anger them into voting against Republicans. (It's not like Democrats are doing much to solve the problem either.)
 
But Whitman has been far more vocal than Fiorina on immigration (arguing for employer sanctions for hiring illegal immigrants, something that pro-comprehensive immigration reform champions really don't like as a standalone concept). With Wilson's appearances in her primary ads, Whitman has used imagery that is likely to send a much stronger, arguably "coded" message on the subject that is likely to be far more noticed, and problematic, for Hispanics in California. But memories are short. Whitman's Spanish language ads are more recent, and Democrats have done a poor job of casting Whitman as a flip-flopper.

The essence of Fiorina's comments in support of the Arizona bill have been inherently tied to the notion that the federal government failed to secure the border and thus brought the bill on itself -- rather than, say, the notion that Arizona's law should be widely adopted across the country. Fiorina has also acknowledged that there is a racist tone to some chatter about immigration. Ultimately, it's she who's taking a more nuanced position on the subject itself, but it's Whitman who has adapted the messaging.
 
The main point may be that Latinos aren't revolting against Republicans the way that Democrats expected them to -- or need them to -- just yet.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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