The setting is a Downtown Houston hotel conference room, bursting with several hundred grassroots activists. It’s a hot midsummer day outside, and it’s raining slightly, a brief departure from the summer’s worrisome drought conditions. The people are gathered for a day-long training and educational conference with local tea party groups. FreedomWorks has helped coordinate, plan and sponsor this event, bringing in several of the usual topics such as campaigning and grassroots organizing. But there’s a Houston presenter on the agenda with a subject not usually found in tea party gatherings. Over half the participants have no idea what’s coming, because organizers underestimated the attendance by at least half, printing far less than the number of schedules needed.
Melissa Salas Blair, a stylish and outspoken academic who has served in the U.S. Navy and holds dual Masters’ degrees, is the energy behind Texas Puentes Initiative, an effort to educate and promote political involvement among Latinos. She is bringing the results of a recent survey of 500 Hispanic eligible voters to a room full of tea party types. There are a few argumentative people, tossing out words like “socialists” and “invasion” in their comments, but most in the room are captivated by the data. And that’s what Melissa is here to present – hard data.
The survey results at first paint a picture of a community unfamiliar with tea party people, fondly reminiscent of President Clinton, and predictably favoring Democrats. Few are surprised at these results. But Blair’s survey, ranging from questions about political parties to Hispanic organizations to specific candidates, leaves the crowd stunned with results such as these:
The results of this question alone suggest that conservatives have more in common with Hispanics than liberals do. In fact, this data almost exactly mirrors the results of this frequently-cited Gallup survey, something those gathered don’t expect, but the implications of which they quickly begin to envision.
Another question, regarding well-known Hispanic organizations, shocks the crowd and sparks a round of questions that threaten to keep Blair from finishing her presentation in the allotted time:
While an overwhelming majority of the attendees in the room answer that they know of both La Raza and LULAC, only 49% and 29% of the survey respondents respectively can do the same. Some in attendance begin to suspect that perhaps these organizations spend less time actually in the Hispanic communities than on television, where they purport to speak for those communities. A look at another question seems to add weight to their suspicions:
Blair says the issues question was open-ended; respondents were asked what issues were important to the Hispanic community and were left to fill in the blanks. The immigration issue wasn’t broken down by category, so there isn’t any way to tell whether immigration’s high rank is from DREAM Act support, border concerns, preference for streamlined legal immigration processes or some combination of factors. But the rest of the top answers are telling, and the audience recognizes many of their own favored issues in the results.
After her presentation, Blair stays off to the side for a long time, answering questions about the survey and inviting attendees to join her a few weeks later for a follow-up meeting. At that next meeting, she plans to explore the survey results further, and discuss action plans for bringing groups together over issues. Her invitation states:
The disconnect between the values of most Texas Hispanics and how that translates civically indicates a desperate need for cross-community education and engagement – and those are two of Texas Puentes Initiative’s primary goals. Remember – “puentes” means “bridges” in Spanish.
Republican politicians, especially in states like Texas with a growing Hispanic population, certainly court Latino voters to get elected – if only once every couple of years. But the results of the survey indicate that Hispanics do not feel Republicans are doing a good job of reaching out to them. If politics is about relationships, then many Latino voters assume Republicans only want the long-distance variety. Within the next few election cycles Hispanics will comprise a majority of the Texas population; conservatives, who have much in common with them, will need more than a passing flirtation to keep from losing their hold on Texas politics.