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Op-ed: The Democrats’ Latino Problem

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A voter fills our a provisional ballot by hand for the midterm elections at a polling place in Annapolis, Md., Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Carolyn Kaster / AP

The Democratic National Committee will be holding their 2015 Winter Meeting starting Thursday. Their schedule of events, open to the public, is a laundry list of meetings with key diversity caucuses that make up a critical component of the coalition that put President Obama in the White House in 2012. Despite this built-in diversity, Democrats need to address an important deficit in their coalition: a lack of Latino representation on their list of consultants.

A June 2014 analysis by PowerPAC+, reported by NBC News and others, found that only 1.7 percent of the $500 million spent by the DNC on political consulting went to businesses that are minority-owned or are run by a minority principal. It could be said that despite these numbers over 70 percent of Latinos voted for President Obama in 2012.

However, this is not the right way to be looking at 2016. Yes, Democrats have benefited from a mix of vociferously anti-immigrant opportunists in the GOP as well as conservative lawmakers unwilling to give their constituents any impression of compromise.

But looking at the current list of Republican hopefuls, Jeb Bush is the GOP juggernaut ramping up for an election run and scooping up millions of dollars in donations. It's not Steve King, Ted Cruz, or any other anti-immigrant figurehead.

So far no other Republican candidate can match Jeb Bush, and his generally more moderate stance on immigration is widely cited as a beacon of hope for the GOP in a national election among leaders who feel that Bush's biggest hurdle will be the heavily conservative primary season. Other favorites, such as Scott Walker, Chris Christie and Rand Paul are far from the anti-immigrant race-baiters that hardcore GOP conservatives are used to.

While this may not be of much significance in a heavily blue state like California, competitive states with large numbersof Latinos such as New Mexico or Colorado will increasingly depend on accurate polling and targeted outreach efforts by those who best understand the nuances of Latinos on the ground.

Though Latinos have been strong supporters of Democrats on Election Day, this cannot be described as a love affair for all. The Latino National Survey is considered one of the most reputable academic studies of Latinos and includes over 8,600 completed interviews on a wide range of political topics. When it comes to party identification, the LNS reports that among Latino registered voters, 61 percent say they are Democrats while 22 percent identify as Republican and 17 percent as Independent.

Among Democrats, the identification is misleading because Hispanics do not record high levels of what political scientists call "strong partisanship." According to the LNS about three-in-ten Hispanics are "strong Democrats" while 20 percent say they are "weak Democrats" and 10 percent initially say they are Independent but leaning Democrats. In contrast 8 percent of Latinos say they are "strong Republicans," another 8 percent identify as "weak Republicans" and 6 percent report they are Independent leaning Republican. All told, less than four-in-ten Latinos are strong partisans of either party, while about six-in-ten are waiting with open ears.

While Latinos take a "wait and see" approach to politics, the Right has been taking a two-pronged approach to Latino recruitment. They are directing more private funding into seeking out ways to reach out to Latinos, and they are setting the groundwork for outreach should Latinos take seriously the GOP's flirtation with the first bilingual President since Franklin D. Roosevelt. That Spanish is Jeb's second language would be a difficult temptation to resist by many Latinos.

A great source of private funding is coming from the Koch Brothers with their support of The Libre Initiative. The Arizona Chapter of Libre, which has planted its office near a majority-Latino high school in Mesa, AZ offers English classes that fill the room with eager immigrants and their families who could care less who the Koch Brothers are and only know that someone is trying to assist them with anything from civics classes to computer access. Their Director, Stephen Viramontes, regularly posts on Facebook asking for volunteers who can speak Spanish to come tutor his growing community of Latinos. A successful Latino businessman, Mr. Viramontes has used his influence and success to spread the word, as well as help others build their own businesses.

If there are any hopes among Democrats that a center-right outreach effort wouldn't work among Latinos, they should know that The Libre Initiative classes in Mesa, AZ are regularly overbooked. Libre Initiative says that over a thousand Latinos have signed up for classes that can only hold three hundred. This is remarkably counter-intuitive to yesterday's thinking about politics, particularly since a recent study by researchers at UCLA and MIT ranked Mesa, AZ as the most conservative big city in the country.

Jeb Bush wouldn't need an interpreter to speak to this new crop of Latinos yearning for someone to listen to them. If he becomes the 2016 candidate, Democrats need to recognize his cultural connection as well as Republican inroads in the Latino community. As of now, Democrats certainly haven't demonstrated they are willing to spread the wealth among their consultants in a manner that reflects the generous votes they have received from the Latino community. Latinos have already taken notice. Sooner or later, so will the GOP.