Bill Clinton jumped into the 2016 presidential race in New Hampshire last week, hoping to give Hillary Clinton a win in the early primaries and raising the competition for Latino voters.
Even before he got to the trail, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump was blasting him over the sex scandals from his White House years, including the Monica Lewinsky affair that led to impeachment hearings.
But as he takes up the work of cheerleading for his wife as she seeks the Democratic presidential nomination, the issue is whether he’ll be able to reinvigorate some of the “simpatía” he enjoyed in the Latino community.
“He had a lot of support when he was president and Latinos, I think, prospered more during his administration and the economic boom of the ‘90s, as did other Americans,” said Janet Murguía, president of National Council of La Raza, who served in the Clinton administration. Murguía is not endorsing any candidates because her organization is nonpartisan.
The affection was there when Hillary Clinton ran in 2008, which then-candidate Barack Obama noted during the race, although Hillary Clinton ultimately lost the nomination to Obama.
She performed well in Latino-heavy states. According to a Pew Research Center’s analysis of exit polls, Latinos voted for Hillary Clinton two-to-one over Obama. She beat him 64-26 in Nevada, 67-32 in California and 66-32 in Texas.
Latinos made up about 3 percent of Iowa’s and 2 percent of New Hampshire’s voting eligible populations in 2014, according to Pew Research Center. With the tight Democratic races, those small numbers could have some impact.
With his return, Bill Clinton brings his elder statesman persona - along with his listening style that has drawn people to him -back to the public space.
"You have to start with the fact that she did run in 2008 and did have very large Latino support, in part she was building on the acute affection the community had for Bill Clinton," said María Echaveste, who was a White House deputy chief of staff to Clinton in his second term. "It's value added to have Bill Clinton on the campaign trail."
Hillary Clinton is heading into the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 and New Hampshire primary Feb. 9, in tight races with Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, according to the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls.
Democratic strategist Oscar Ramirez said Bill Clinton's critical job now is to help Hillary in New Hampshire, where he was the "comeback kid" in 1992. Down the road, Clinton supporters hope he can help create a Latino firewall in the primaries that follow.
“If Sanders wins in New Hampshire and Iowa, the race becomes competitive …. Florida, California and Nevada, that’s where Bill Clinton will be helpful to her when it comes to the Latino vote,” said Ramírez, a principal with Podesta Group. Ramirez is an unpaid adviser to Martin O’Malley’s campaign.
Even Donald Trump’s attacks on Bill Clinton could be helpful, say some Democrats. . “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Ramirez said. “The fact that Donald Trump is attacking Bill and Hillary reinforces the positive image Bill Clinton has with community.”
Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist who worked on the Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, disagreed.
"Bill Clinton is popular with the Latino community, yes," she said. "But he was equally popular in 2008, and Hillary still lost to Barack Obama. Also, Hillary really needs to win Iowa and New Hampshire. Losing either to (Bernie) Sanders would be a significant blow to her mantle of inevitability and send shockwaves in the Democratic primary."
"Unfortunately for Hillary and Bill, there' not many of us Latinos crazy enough to brave the Iowa or New Hampshire winters," Navarro said, noting the fact that these are not Latino-heavy states.
Federico Peña, who served as Transportation Secretary in the Clinton administration, said that beside recalling better economic times, some Latinos may remember that Bill Clinton appointed Hispanics to higher level positions throughout his administration, including judgeships, and was very supportive of Latino education and bilingual education.
Bill Clinton also was well liked in Mexico and that kind of support carries over into the Latino community, Peña said.
“That’s all connected. Latinos in the U.S. saw President Clinton as someone involved and supportive in the hemisphere, trade and other relationships. Those are reasons that at least the older generation (of Latinos) remembers Clinton and ascribes positive attributes to him,” he said.
Despite being part of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, Peña supported Obama in 2008, rather than Hillary Clinton. This time Peña has contributed to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and participated in functions for her, but is not yet officially part of the campaign.
Supporters say Bill Clinton's ability to connect with people on different topics will be tough for other candidates to match, and will be a boost to his wife's campaign.
“There’s been a lot of great presidents, but I don’t think anyone would argue he has been the best president to break down complex issues and explain them to the American people in way they can understand,” Murguía said.
“There are some 15 million Latinos who have turned voting age since President Clinton left office and another million will do so this year,” Janet Murguía, National Council of La Raza president.
But this year immigration is playing a far greater role than in previous elections, and Bill Clinton’s immigration legacy may be a drawback for Hillary Clinton, who has been pressured on the issue throughout her campaign.
Roberto Suro, director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at University of Southern California, spent several years covering the Clinton administration as a reporter. He said he concluded that Bill Clinton had a blind spot when it comes to immigration.
“It was just not an issue that had engaged him much ever, except when he got a fright in ’93-’94 that it could cost him California,” Suro said. “Then his reaction was to throw resources at border enforcement and go along with the ’96 legislation.” This was known as the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, a sweeping bill that focused largely on toughening enforcement and raising penalties for immigration violations.
Suro said Clinton largely saw Latinos in a civil rights framework “as being something like blacks but not quite. I actually think Hillary has a great deal more credibility with Latino Democrats than he does because of all the work she put into the ’08 campaign,” he said.
During his administration, however, Congress passed a smaller legalization program that became known as 245(i) after the section of the U.S. immigration code where it is found. People who had been in the country illegally were able to adjust their status if a relative or employer could petition for them for a green card.
The Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act. a legalization program for Nicaraguans and some other Central Americans also was approved during his presidency.
Massey Villarreal, a Texas businessman and former National Chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said immigrant advocates questioning and pressing Hillary Clinton on the issue aren't going to let others forget Bill Clinton's record.
"People in the immigration world haven’t forgotten he was nowhere" on immigration, Villareal said.
Younger immigrants active in the campaigns have been skeptical of Clinton's newer views on immigration even though many of her recent positions are in line with what they want from the next president. Many are too young to have experienced the Clinton years and only know about the tougher provisions of the 1996 law that he left behind.
It is also clear that demographics have changed since Bill Clinton exited the Oval Office.
“There are some 15 million Latinos who have turned voting age since President Clinton left office and another million will do so this year,” Murguía said.