For all the glamour, power, vast overspending, intense global media attention and genuinely complex national challenges facing the contenders and the American people, the race for the White House this year and next could come down to one central psephological question – who will win the Hispanic vote?
The launch of Jeb Bush’s formal campaign in Miami was an explicit pitch to that key group of electors. As a former Governor of Florida, Mr Bush is in true home territory in Miami, and in the coming months his audiences will be reminded of his wife, Columba Garnica de Gallo, his fluency in Spanish, his degree in Latin American studies and his remarkable achievement in making his Hispanic voters natural Republicans. At any rate, he probably will not have to rely on too many hanging chads in his home state, if it ever comes to it.
Symbolism counts for more than it perhaps should in US elections and, in Miami, Americans witnessed it at its most powerful. Specifically, Miami Dade College, the scene of this fifth bid for the presidency by a Bush in a little over a quarter of a century, has two-thirds of its students identifying themselves as US-born but of Latino heritage, with another quarter born variously in Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua or Peru. Mr Bush is reminding them, and their compatriots, that he is about social mobility, for them as much as any group. It is a winning message.
Above all, it was here, in the US Hispanic community, that the last Republican campaign, headed by Mitt Romney, came so badly unstuck. It was sometimes said that being a Mormon was a problem for him, but not as big a problem as his lack of connection with Democratic voters of every religious and ethnic variety whom he derided as too poor to be Republicans, and irrelevant. Thus was dismissed much of the centre ground of American voting, exacerbating Mr Romney’s lack of appeal to the marginal Hispanic constituency. Only 27 per cent of them backed him over Barack Obama. Mr Romney’s lack of sympathy towards the aspirations of Hispanic émigrés sank his chances.
As we saw recently in the case of the British Labour Party – and may see again in that case – sometimes such simple electoral verities get forgotten by political parties with a lot on their minds. US Republicans certainly need to place the Hispanic electorate front and centre in their campaign. Hitherto, this has been seen to be a peculiar advantage of the latest Bush to seek the Republican nomination – Jeb, son of George H W and brother of George W, and, not least, also son of Barbara, probably the best loved of the entire clan. More than the other Bushes, Jeb has a plausible claim to be able to mobilise that Hispanic vote.
Yet he has competition. Mr Bush’s slightly lacklustre campaign in recent weeks has been overshadowed by that of Senator Marco Rubio – and the clue to his appeal lies in his name. A fellow Floridian, he is closer than Jeb to George W Bush politically, being hawkish on defence and social issues, as well as embodying the idea of America as a land of opportunity (he is of Cuban background). He also possesses a certain boyish charm – at 43, he is young even by modern political standards.
From this distance, it is the Republicans, at least in the politics of personality and symbolism, who are reaching out to the ethnic groups which previously shunned them. Hillary Clinton may have an appeal to women, to the blue-collar vote and to many Americans sentimental about her husband’s time in office, but she might think about learning a few Spanish phrases over the coming weeks.Reuse content