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Polling Center: Clear Demographics, Unclear Politics

Sages in both political parties say they are the natural ideological allies of the rising Hispanic population in Texas. But while the demographic trends are undeniable, the political meaning behind them is cloudy.

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As the rapid growth of the Hispanic population becomes a set piece of any discussion of Texas politics, opinion leaders in both parties regularly claim that theirs is the natural home to this sought after group. But data from recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling suggests that the attitudes of Hispanic voters tend to rest somewhere in between the positions occupied by the parties, though tilting, as one might expect, toward the Democrats.

Looking at both voting trends and party identification in polling, Democratic appeals based on the party’s economic positions — especially vis-a-vis the social safety net and their less restrictive views on immigration and treatment of immigrants — have tended to attract majorities of voting Hispanics. Republican appeals based on conservative social values and an avowed alignment with small business owners have been less successful in numerical terms, though the party is stepping up efforts in the 2014 campaign. In the June 2013 UT/TT Poll, 58 percent of Hispanics identified as Democrats while only 30 percent identified as Republicans (the mirror image of Anglos in Texas).

The paradox is that Hispanics tend to identify with the Democratic Party without necessarily holding uniformly Democratic attitudes.

As public discussion of immigration reform and other immigration-related issues has increased, the issue has joined economic policy in linking Hispanics with the Democratic Party — a link likely strengthened by the increased mobilization of conservatives in the Republican Party who intensely oppose less restrictive immigration policies and, more broadly, for whom immigration and border security register as critical problems facing the state.

The affinity between Hispanics and Democrats came across most clearly when we asked about the most important problem facing the country: 33 percent of both Democrats and Hispanics say that the economy or unemployment and jobs are the most important issue, compared with 21 percent of Republicans.

The clearest differences appear when looking at immigration. While 72 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Hispanics support comprehensive immigration reform, 64 percent of Texas Republicans oppose it. In a more cutting result, 64 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Hispanics say that immigration is a good thing overall, while 52 percent of Republicans say it’s a bad thing.

In many instances, however, Hispanics tend to fall somewhere between the parties when it comes to their current political perceptions:

  • Obama Job Approval: 54 percent of Hispanics approve (80 percent of Democrats approve; 90 percent of Republicans disapprove).
  • Perry Job Approval: 34 percent of Hispanics approve; 40 percent disapprove (among Democrats, 14 percent approve and 68 percent disapprove, while for Republicans, 71 percent approve and 15 percent disapprove).
  • Texas Legislature Approval: 28 percent of Hispanics approve; 34 percent disapprove (among Democrats, 17 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove; for Republicans, 53 percent approve and 17 percent disapprove).
  • National Economy: 41 percent of Hispanics say the economy is a lot or somewhat better than it was a year ago (compared with 63 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans).
  • Direction of the Country: 41 percent of Hispanics think the country is on the right track; 43 percent say it is on the wrong track (among Democrats, 56 percent right track, 27 percent wrong track; among Republicans, 5 percent right track, 91 percent wrong track).
  • Direction of Texas: 46 percent of Hispanics think that Texas is on the right track; 34 percent say that the state is on the wrong track (among Democrats, 33 percent right track, 48 percent wrong track; among Republicans, 68 percent right track, 18 percent wrong track).

This ambiguity feeds Republicans' contentions that Hispanics look more like their voters, particularly when it comes to abortion; a conservative group is already running ads in Spanish that tie Wendy Davis to her abortion filibuster.

The polling numbers on Hispanics and abortion are mixed, however, and don’t offer Republicans the frequently advertised advantage. While a majority of Hispanics supported the 20-week ban (60 percent), 48 percent also think that abortion should be allowed in all circumstances or in circumstances encompassing more than the three most talked about exceptions (rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother). So while Hispanics may differ slightly from the Democratic coalition on a key social issue, it’s not clear that they can be folded into the social conservative coalition without some major adjustments on the part of the GOP — or on the part of Hispanics.

There are also reasons to question Democratic assumptions about their fit with Hispanic priorities. Democrats might expect education to be the mobilizing force they so desperately seek. But Hispanics don’t exactly match up with Democrats on the issue. For instance, 41 percent of Democrats say that the education system in Texas is either good or excellent compared with 51 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of Hispanics. The issue of vocational education and tracking is an area where Hispanics do align with the traditional Democratic position: 69 percent of Hispanics think graduation requirements should be aimed at college enrollment (compared with 61 percent of Democrats, but only 40 percent of Republicans).

The now ubiquitous refrain that “demographics is destiny” is not only pathetically shopworn, it’s fundamentally misleading when it comes to predicting the role of the increasingly Latino population in Texas politics. The population trends are clear. But the rest is up for grabs, and will require real work by both parties far beyond expecting Latino voters to respond to lip service.

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