Jeb Bush can't take Hispanic vote for granted

Jeb Bush, who speaks fluent Spanish and has a Mexican-born wife, is the Republican hopeful who would do best among Hispanic voters in the 2016 presidential elections. But his party – and he himself – have veered so far to the right on immigration and social issues that even he will have a big Latino problem.

Most pollsters agree that Republicans will need between 40 percent and 44 percent of the Hispanic vote to win in 2016, much more than they received in recent elections. The most recent Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, lost the 2012 election to a large extent because he only got 27 percent of the Latino vote.

There is little question that Jeb would be the best equipped to win Latino votes among the current Republican hopefuls. He is the only one who speaks Spanish at home, has lived in Mexico and Venezuela, majored in Latin American studies at the University of Texas, and has had close Cuban-American friends and business associates since he moved to Miami in 1980.

It was no coincidence that, during his presidential announcement on Monday, the crowd chanted “Viva Jeb!” Congresswoman Ileana Ross Lehtinen, R-Miami, said: “Jeb is Cuban. He’s Nicaraguan. He’s Venezuelan.”

While fellow Republican hopefuls Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have Cuban parents, and Rubio also speaks fluent Spanish, they don’t have a Mexican wife and Mexican-American children who can campaign with them in Spanish, nor Bush’s personal history of having lived in Latin America.

Despite all of this, Bush would face an uphill battle to get more than 40 percent of the Latino vote and win the 2016 elections. Democrats and pro-immigration groups are already stressing that Bush is running for what they call “the deportation party,” and say that he is already retrenching from his previous moderation on immigration issues.

Among their main lines of attack:

Matt Barreto and Gary Segura, of Latino Decisions, a Hispanic market polling firm, wrote earlier this week that these and other stands are likely to cause Bush to lose the Latino vote.

“Latino voters have proven more than willing to reject even actual Latinos as candidates when their policy positions are in contrast to the community preferences,” they wrote. “Bush’s marriage and linguistic skills, while symbolically important, would founder if his issue positions are in contrast to the average Latino voter.”

My opinion: The key test for Bush’s presidential bid will be whether he can withstand the temptation to shift further to the right on immigration during the primaries, where he will need to court anti-immigration voters in northern states, and where he will be attacked by his fellow Republican hopefuls for his support for comprehensive immigration reform.

If Bush can win the Republican nomination by maintaining a pro-immigration profile and convincing his fellow Republicans that – whether they like his immigration stands or not – he’s their best hope to win the White House, he will have a chance in 2016. If, as many of us suspect, he shifts to the right on immigration because he thinks that it will be the only way to win the primaries, as Romney did in 2012, he’s doomed to lose the Hispanic vote, and the 2016 election.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172; email: aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.