Friday, August 1, 2008

Is McCain the New Dole?

Twelve years ago against Bill Clinton, Bob Dole ran a spectacularly inept effort to win Hispanic votes. There was little money, almost no ads and a couple of staffers cut off from campaign insiders. The candidate was an honorable man, a war hero with a dry sense of humor, but worried too much about protecting his right flank from the likes of immigrant-bashing Pat Buchanan.

Dole clueless about Hispanic America, ended up with a record-low 21 percent of the Hispanic vote. Even in Cuban Miami, “in the most lopsided Republican stronghold precincts of Hialeah and Little Havana, which Bush and Reagan were sometimes able to carry by margins as high as nine to one, Dole barely received 60 percent of the vote,” wrote Darío Moreno, a political scientist at Miami’s Florida International University.

Can something similar happen to this year’s Republican, another honorable man and war hero with a quirky sense of humor?

This week's national survey by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that Barack Obama held a sizable lead among Hispanic registered voters, leading John McCain by 66 percent to 23 percent.

That’s Dole numbers, surprising for a Republican from Arizona, a state with a large Hispanic population that gave McCain a majority in his most recent race for Senate. Even more surprising: among Cuban-Americans, the poll claimed, Obama was up 53 percent to 28 percent.

Now, there are many Cuban-Americans — including Cuban-Americans who once or maybe even twice voted for George W. Bush — who have come to believe the current administration has wreaked enormous damage to this country in almost every conceivable way. They believe, like so many others, that a profound transformation in leadership is mandatory to rebuild American power and international prestige.

But 53 percent? Everything I know about Cubans tells me that figure is off. Barack Obama is not going to win the Cuban-American vote, because there simply is too much mistrust, especially among older voters, about his Cuba policy.

The Dole-McCain parallels work sometimes, sometimes not. Both men are coming off primary seasons in which the far right of their party demonized Hispanics. Both candidates also know that to win, they can’t disregard the vociferously anti-immigrant GOP base.

But McCain is much more Hispanic-savvy than Dole was. He is trying a balancing act Dole never attempted. McCain has television spots in Spanish, runs a Spanish-language campaign Web site, and has gone not only to Miami’s Calle Ocho, where it’s easy for Republicans, but has also spoken to Democrat-leaning, Mexican-American-dominated organizations like the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza.

McCain, however, has one burden Dole never had: the enormous unpopularity of a sitting Republican president. It’s gotten so bad that according to a poll in early July by Bendixen & Associates, the incumbent Miami congressional Republican brothers Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart, once thought unbeatable, are barely leading their moderate Democratic Cuban-American opponents, Raúl Martínez and Joe García.

Yet the same poll claimed that among Miami Cubans, Obama has Dole-like numbers: 21 percent support him.

I don’t believe it any more than the 53 percent in the Pew poll. My sense is that enough Cubans have turned against Republicans to put Obama in the place Clinton was in 1992: He’s got a shot at 40 percent. Which happens to be the number McCain is shooting for, nationally, among Hispanics.

Nationally, of course, other Hispanics do not much care about Cuba policy, and they are traditionally Democratic to begin with. Add to that the anger about GOP xenophobic rantings, even though nobody thinks of McCain as part of the anti-immigrant crowd (including, significantly, the anti-immigrant crowd).

Also add the lackluster performance of the McCain campaign — the maverick of 2000 may have had a chance against Obama’s political superstar, but eight years later McCain is reduced to a technophobe fuddy-duddy given to foreign-policy gaffes, mouthing Republican boilerplate from the Reagan era, and embarrassing himself with the pathetically feeble Paris-Britney-Barack comparison. And add the $20 million the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee announced this week they’d spend going after Hispanic voters.

At this point, there are no political developments visible in the horizon to help John McCain win more than 30 percent of the national Hispanic vote. Better than Dole, but not enough to win the Hispanic-heavy swing states of Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

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