Monday, December 12, 2011

Is Newt Gingrich Really Better Than Mitt Romney Among Hispanic Voters?

Newt Gingrich's recent rise in the polls has been accompanied by a lot of chatter about the implications of his potential nomination on the general election.

Gingrich's slightly more reasonable stance on immigration (which would spare law-abiding immigrants who have been in the country for 20 years from deportation, but wouldn't offer a pathway to citizenship) has some analysts arguing that he would fare better among Hispanics in a general election. The former Speaker's Hispanic outreach program and his efforts to learn Spanish have also been cited as reasons why he might have an advantage over Mitt Romney among this important demographic. Some are even saying that Gingrich's advantage with Hispanics could be enough to "slice into Obama's base in key states in the Mountain West."

This line of reasoning is decidedly unconvincing. While the Republican Party -- if it hopes to make inroads with Hispanic voters -- would be well-advised to temper its extremist rhetoric on immigration, many Beltway pundits are missing the biggest point of all: Hispanics don't vote based on a single issue alone. And if they did, it would be on jobs and the economy, or even education, but not immigration.

Since 2007, Project New West has conducted extensive public opinion research in Hispanic communities throughout the West. More recently, we've partnered with Project New America Latino, a newly launched research and strategy company focused on understanding the diverse and growing Hispanic community by state and region. What we've learned is that this is a diverse community with varying and highly nuanced views and issue priorities. Within the West, Hispanic communities vary by socio-economic characteristics like education, wealth, language preference, and profession. Simply stated, it's a mistake to paint this community with a broad brush, and assuming that one issue can win widespread support is a mistake.

This was apparent earlier this fall, when Project New West conducted a 3,000-interview regional survey in 6 western states (AZ, CO, MT, NM, NV, and WA). We found that just 9% of Hispanic voters in these states view immigration as their most important issue, compared with 59% who said jobs and the economy were most important. To put that in perspective, 8% of white voters said immigration was the most important issue in the same poll.

The regional poll also showed that Rick Perry -- a frontrunner at the time and a moderate on immigration--was actually less popular among Western Hispanics than Romney, who has struck an extremist anti-immigration tone this election cycle. Importantly, the poll was conducted in the immediate aftermath of a round of press that followed Perry calling opponents of in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants "heartless." That Romney was more popular --even in the midst of a high-profile episode that cast his opponent as a moderate -- shows that winning over western Hispanics requires more than taking the "correct" stance on immigration.

In PNW's regional research also showed that 61% of Hispanics said they'd be less likely to vote for a candidate who called Social Security a "lie" and a "failure," language similar to how Gingrich has described Congress's handling of Social Security.

This squares with research we've conducted, which shows that, while most Hispanic voters want to see a comprehensive federal solution to immigration, they are primarily concerned with issues of economic opportunity. They see a role for government in helping ensure economic opportunity and social mobility. Education is key to this belief. A 2010 poll PNW conducted in Nevada showed a majority of Hispanic voters would have favored raising their own taxes to stop cuts to public education. While we've never tested Gingrich's proposed remedy of hiring kids to work as janitors to save schools money, suffice to say it's unlikely to resonate with Hispanic voters.

To be sure, taking a reasonable stance on immigration is a must for the GOP if it plans to make inroads with Hispanics in the West in 2012. However, it will take a lot more than posturing on a single issue to win over this important and diverse demographic next year.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lessons from Mississippi

Advocates for a common-sense approach to reproductive health policy are rightfully taking pride in the defeat of the Personhood amendment in Mississippi this week. As we celebrate the defeat of this extremist legislation, it's important to remember the lessons of Mississippi going forward: that Personhood lost--in large part--due to highly effective messaging that framed the measure as what it actually was --government overreach trampling on what should be personal decisions.

Mississippi Initiative 26, known as the Personhood initiative, would have defined the term "person" in the State Constitution to include fertilized human eggs, likely banning many common forms of birth control. In an April Project New West poll conducted by Benenson Strategy Group, 55% of Mississippians supported the initiative, while just 33% opposed it.

In the run-up to election day, however, opposition to Personhood began to focus more on the effects of the initiative, framing the measure in terms that highlighted how it would take choice on reproductive rights out of individuals' hands, and put it into the hands of the government.

"When you stop to think about it, 26 is government going way too far," a Mississippi grandmother said in a radio ad paid for by the opposition group Mississippians for Healthy Families.

"26 puts government between a woman and her doctor," says a nurse in a TV ad sponsored by the same group.

“Mississippi voters rejected the so-called ‘personhood’ amendment because they understood it is government gone too far, and would have allowed government to have control over personal decisions that should be left up to a woman, her family, her doctor and her faith," Planned Parenthood explained in a release following the defeat of the initiative.

The common theme here is clear: voters--even in a red state like Mississippi--oppose anti-reproductive rights measures when they view it through a lens of government intrusion.

This lesson has huge national implications as the 2012 cycle begins in earnest. Project New West recently completed a nationwide survey on abortion attitudes--also conducted by Benenson Strategy Group--which showed fully 80% of voters nationwide agree with the statement that "government should not be getting involved in the decision to end a pregnancy, it's better left to a woman, her family and her faith."

What happened in Mississippi this week is truly a victory Mississippians who believe individuals, and not the government, should make decisions about reproductive health. If we remember how this battle was won, it could also lead to many more victories in 2012 and beyond.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Romney Repeating Ken Buck's Errors on Personhood

As Mississippi Republicans back away from the controversial personhood ballot initiative that would restrict reproductive rights in the state, Project New West's polling shows GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney's position on this national issue looks increasingly out-of-touch with a majority of voters.

The Mississippi personhood initiative, which has been overwhelmingly turned down in previous election cycles by voters in Colorado, would define the term "person" in the State Constitution to include fertilized human eggs, and grant fertilized embryos the same legal rights and protections afforded to people. The initiative is being promoted by a group called Personhood USA, which has a stated goal of putting the initiative on the ballot in all 50 states.

This week, conservative Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour distanced himself from the initiative. "I'm somebody that believes life begins at conception, that's one of the reasons I'm pro-life," Barbour said Wednesday on Fox News. "But a lot of pro-life people have problems with this particular language... There's concern this is ambiguous, even in an enormously pro-life state like mine, there is some concern about this."

While the ambiguity of the initiative may be cause for concern for some conservatives in Mississippi, it doesn't seem to faze Mitt Romney, who has said he'd support a constitutional amendment defining life as beginning at conception.

The problem for Romney is that, while most Americans would like to see fewer abortions, an overwhelming majority do not think that government should have a role in deciding whether a woman should have an abortion. A recent nationwide survey conducted by PNW shows that 80% of likely voters agreed with the statement that "government should not be getting involved in the decision to end a pregnancy, it's better left to a woman, her family and her faith."

If recent history is any indication, Romney is at serious risk of alienating mainstream voters. In 2010, Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck's early support for the Personhood amendment was effectively used against him in the general election. The initiative, which had already lost by a wide margin in 2008, was trounced in 2010, with roughly 70 percent voting against the measure -- including every Colorado county -- in what was considered a strong year for conservatives.

Despite his efforts to walk back some of his more extreme statements on abortion, Buck narrowly lost to Democrat Michael Bennet. Bennet's victory was widely attributed to his campaign's ability to cast Buck as an extremist on social issues.

Organizers of the Personhood amendment are currently working to put the measure in western presidential battlegrounds like Nevada, where recent Project New West polling showed that unaffiliated voters -- a crucial bloc -- identify as "pro-choice" over "pro-life" by a 2-1 margin.

In a GOP primary contest that remains highly competitive, Governor Romney no doubt sees an advantage in tacking to the right on social issues to appease the base with of his party. However, it's clear the American people are simply not with him on this issue.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

There's Nothing "Western" About Being Extreme

Last November, while the right wing of the Republican party celebrated decisive electoral victories throughout the country, ultra-conservatives in Western battleground states were left to ponder a more mixed result. While Republicans secured important victories in the Nevada and New Mexico gubernatorial races, they also failed to capture either house of the state legislature in those states. In Colorado, conservative Republicans lost both of the state's high-profile statewide races. That the West served as an effective Democratic firewall in a year when right-wing Republicans achieved overwhelming victories in such battleground states as Wisconsin and Ohio has widely been seen as testament to the increasingly moderate views of the Western electorate.

Almost a year later it doesn't appear as though the right has learned a great deal from the 2010 experience. Over the weekend, conservative pundits, policymakers, and presidential candidates convened in suburban Lakewood, Colorado for the annual "Western Conservative Summit," where they committed to the second annual "Lone Tree Declaration," a pledge to support ultra-conservative policies on everything from the federal budget to abortion to foreign policy. At this year's conference, presidential candidate Rick Santorum shared his concern that same-sex unions could lead to legalized bigamy and incest. Texas Governor and likely presidential candidate Rick Perry, meanwhile, used the forum to lob red meat criticism at President Obama.

The Conservative Western Summit may well have served its purpose in rallying the right-wing base in Colorado, but the themes presented at the conference fly in the face of everything you'd expect Republicans would have learned about the West in the last few years. As PNW has learned through extensive public opinion research, the last thing Western voters want is for candidates to "commit unswervingly" to any ideological platform, particularly not on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Our June, 2011 Nevada survey of 601 likely Nevada voters shows that over half of Nevada voters think gay marriage should be legally recognized, including 7 out of 10 independent voters. Surveying the Western political landscape, it's clear that the most popular statewide politicians in the region--New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval--are those who have worked across the aisle and compromised with the opposition in the legislature, particularly on state budgets.

But it wasn't just the Western Conservative Summit's commitment to right-wing politics that was telling. Save for the location of the event, there was nothing "Western" about the Conservative Summit's agenda, which was filled with presentations such as “Replacing Obamacare after Its Repeal" (a ballot initiative to exempt Colorado from provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act failed in 2010) and “Our Choice: Sharia or the Constitution." What's more, very few speakers at the event--which featured cable news commentators like Dick Morris and Tucker Carlson, as well as former Bush administration official John Bolton--stand out as authorities on the West, or are even from the region at all.

PNW's research has shown that Western voters are looking for politicians who understand and defend their unique way of life. This explains how a state like Montana, which is quite conservative on a number of key national issues, has three Democrats as its most-prominent elected officials. It also explains how a Democrat like Dave Freudenthal could win multiple terms as governor of conservative state like Wyoming. For Western voters, a sense that politicians understand the unique issues affecting their lives is as important as party affiliation and ideology. Indeed, it will take more-nuanced approach than "declaring fidelity" to an ideology to win in the West.

As in years past, PNW expects the winners in 2012 to be the candidates who most-effectively convey that they understand the aspirations, lifestyles and challenges of their constituents, and are working pragmatically to defend their unique interests. While both parties have plenty of opportunity to seize that mantle before next November, we believe the ideals and themes laid out at the Western Conservative Summit are the antithesis of what Western voters are looking for in 2012.