Gov. Chris Christie pulled off in New Jersey what Mitt Romney failed to do nationally – attract lots of Latino voters. Now, can he or any other GOP presidential hopeful do the same nationally in 2016?
Christie’s capture of 51 percent of the Latino vote helped return him for a second term as governor. Just as important, it’s given Republicans a shining example showing other GOPers they can rebound from Romney’s 27 percent showing with Latinos in 2012.
“The results show we can win the Latino vote,” said Izzy Santa, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, which assisted Christie’s campaign. “Our work isn’t done there. We are going to evaluate where we need to be to keep growing the electorate.”
Getting that large share of the Latino vote was done by treating Latinos like everybody else and getting in the trenches long before election time, Christie said in a post-election news conference.
“The problem politicians make is they look at a specific community and say what can I say to appeal to them? That’s not my approach. Latino folks want the same thing that everyone else wants,” Christie said.
Mike Duhaime, Christie’s top political strategist, voiced what is likely to become mantra for Republicans who have been steadily losing Latinos amid anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric.
“There’s no chance to win a blue state if you don’t go out and win over Hispanics, win over a larger portion of African Americans, win a large chunk of Democrats,” Duhaime told Chuck Todd on Wednesday’s morning’s “The Daily Rundown.”
But New Jersey’s Latino population is not a mirror of the Hispanic population at large. What plays in Jersey, may not play in New Mexico, even if that state’s governor was at Christie’s side on the final day of his campaign.
The state’s largest Latino group is Puerto Rican, about 30 percent of the Latino population, according to Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project. Among eligible Latino voters, four-in-ten are Puerto Rican, 13 percent are of Dominican origin, about 9 percent are of Cuban descent and five percent are of Mexican origin. Another 31 percent are of other Hispanic origin.
Nationally, 59 percent of eligible Latino voters are of Mexican origin, 14 percent are Puerto Rican, 5 percent are Cuban, 3 percent are Dominican and 16 percent are of other Hispanic origin, according to Pew.
There are many issues that resonate throughout the Latino community, but not all have the same ranking of importance when it comes time to vote.
“There’s plenty of research that shows Puerto Rican Hispanics are much less supportive of liberalized immigration reform. It’s not an issue that affects them in the same personal way as Mexican-origin Hispanics,” said Ali Adam Valenzuela, a political scientist at Princeton University.
In addition, Election Day exit polling was done only in English, meaning Hispanics who were reached were likely to be more “assimilated,” educated and higher income, Valenzuela said.
Those differences are likely to make courting a national Latino population more complex for Christie in a 2016 presidential run as well as for any other candidates. There is little expectation that a candidate could get 51 percent, but winning nationally generally means getting at least 35 percent of the Latino vote.
What Christie did right was to stay away from the extreme policy positions and rhetoric of other Republicans. He didn’t repeat the mistakes Romney made of calling for “self-deportation” of people illegally in the country.
Immigration had the potential to become a thorn in Christie’s humming-along campaign, when young immigrants began pressing him about in-state tuition for DREAMers – the young immigrants brought by their parents to the U.S. illegally.
Christie had opposed in-state tuition for DREAMers but changed his view, diffusing the issue that could have ripped into the Latino support he had been building.
“He literally embraced diversity, when he talked about all the different people he had hugged in the campaign. That was meant to speak to the potential non-white Republican voter,” Latino Decisions political scientist Sylvia Manzano said.
The issue was front and center for Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who lost his gubernatorial bid to Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia Tuesday night. Though Cucinelli dialed-down some of his rhetoric on immigration, he was unable to walk away from previous positions and actions on the issue.
“It is telling that (Christie) won and Cucinelli lost and you know, the party needs to understand whether those are two isolated events or if there is a connection because there were two very different Republican messages, I believe,” said Carlos Gutierrez, former Secretary of Commerce under President George W. Bush who has worked with the GOP to attract the Latino vote.
Overall, Christie was a well-liked and formidable candidate who related to Latinos, Gutierrez said. “As many people say,” Gutierrez said, “the candidate makes the difference.”