PASADENA—In a year when Latinos overwhelmingly favor the Democrats on the issues, one would expect Al Gore to have a huge lead over George W. Bush in polls of Latino voters.
But he doesn't—and no one really knows why, says R. Michael Alvarez, a professor of political science at the California Institute of Technology and an authority on Latino voting patterns.
"Al Gore is having a problem connecting with Latinos right now," says Alvarez, who was outside consultant for Knight Ridder on their 2000 Hispanic Voter Poll. The poll of 2,700 Latino voters nationwide showed that the most important issues, in descending order, are education, crime and drugs, and health care.
Eighty percent of the voters polled think the Democrats have the upper hand on those issues, Alvarez says.
"You'd expect Gore to be really far ahead of Bush, but he's only 16 percent ahead," he says. "So Latinos are evaluating Gore as a better candidate on the issues, but they're just not falling into his election coalition at this point."
And not only does Bush garner an unusually high level of Latino support for a Republican, but he also polls well with crossover voters. In the Knight Ridder poll, about 8 percent of Latino Republicans said they would vote for Gore, while 16 percent of Latino Democrats said they'd vote for Bush.
Also unexpectedly, the language issue seems to be working in Bush's favor. Both major candidates speak Spanish and often do so on the stump, but Bush speaks a colloquial form he apparently picked up during his years in Texas.
"Gore speaks a textbooky, Harvardy sort of Spanish," says Alvarez, speculating that the Democratic candidate likely studied the language during his college years at Harvard.
"Bush speaks more of a colloquial, Texas sort of Spanish, and Mexican-Americans here in Los Angeles probably connect better with that than Gore's textbook kind of Spanish."
Other than the slight advantage in language style, Alvarez doesn't see why Gore is not doing better—other than perhaps his often-discussed problems in connecting with voters in general.
But the findings of the poll are not necessarily bleak for Gore. He's still ahead with Latino voters, and there's good reason to think that much of Bush's support is weak, Alvarez says.
"Gore will almost certainly win California, but if he's not doing so well with Latino voters, he may have to spend more time campaigning here this fall than he would like."