Iowa sent Michele Bachmann packing andRick Santorum soaring. Now comes New Hampshire,where Jon Huntsman is already eyeing the Exit signand Mitt Romney plans on cementing his lead.
But, really, so what?
New Hampshire no habla español. Neither does Iowa,for that matter. Both states are about as whitenon-Hispanic as it gets in this country. Whichmeans that neither one reflects the reality of thepresidential elections in 2012.
Latinos make up only about 2 percent of Iowa'spopulation; even less in New Hampshire.Nationally, though, Hispanics account for about 16percent of the population. More than 21 millionare eligible to vote -- although, right now, onlyabout 11 million are actually registered.
So, neither Iowa nor New Hampshire tells thecandidates anything about what they can expect inthe big and important primary states --California, Texas, New York, Florida -- whichhappen to be the states where Hispanics are majorforces.
Florida alone will award more delegates to thewinner -- 50 -- than Iowa and New Hampshiretogether. And Latinos constitute about 14 percentof voters there. That's not enough to single-handedly win an election, but it's enough to swaythe outcome. That primary, on Jan. 31, will say alot more about who Hispanics like in theRepublican field than the three contests that camebefore it.
But what it might do is knock out a candidate whohas shown he cares about Latinos. A poor enoughshowing in New Hampshire could permanently damagea candidate's chances to bring in money tocontinue, even if he doesn't drop out.
So far, only Newt Gingrich seems to be paying muchattention to the power of Latino voters. He boldlysuggested a "compassionate" approach to the touchyimmigration issue. And, as of the moment, he's theonly Republican candidate with an official websitein Spanish. (Even though, FOUR years ago, hecalled it a "ghetto" language.)
"Newt Gingrich is even taking Spanish lessons,"said political analyst Steffen Schmidt of theUniversity of Iowa, "because he thinks that theRepublican Party cannot grow and maintain itselfunless it can draw a significant percentage --whatever that is, 35 percent or so -- of Latinovoters."
Romney, on the other hand, seems to bedeliberately poking the sleeping Latino lion. In2008, he had a Spanish-language campaign site,with one of his sons pitching for him in perfectlyaccented español. This time, no such thing. Healso firmly insists that, if he's electedpresident, he'll veto the DREAM Act. That's anextremely unpopular position among Latinos,according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.More than 90 percent of Hispanics surveyed supportit.
The other front runners, Ron Paul and RickSantorum, take a hard line on undocumentedimmigrants. Both oppose any kind of amnesty. Pauleven wants to end "birthright citizenship," sothat children born of illegal immigrants would notbe U.S. citizens.
Perry walks a confusing middle ground, supportingin-state tuition for the children of illegalimmigrants in Texas, but opposing the DREAM Act ona national level. And having Arizona Sheriff JoeArpaio as a supporter is likely to hurt more thanhelp him with Latinos on the immigration issue.
But, as Gloria Estefan sang: that "cuts bothways." Schmidt warned that ignoring Hispanics nowmight mean Hispanics will ignore them in November.
"This is a very serious problem for the candidatesbecause they are abandoning a group that is prettyimportant for them," Schmidt said. "The partygenerally has not positioned itself to do verywell with Hispanic voters. It's incomprehensiblegiven the fact that every campaign consultant --I'm talking Republican consultants -- is awarethatas the Hispanic vote grows and becomes a biggerpercentage, especially in some of the key states,they've got to have a strategy of reaching out tothat community. And they seem to be doing lessrather than more."