Jeb Bush's Cinco De Mayo Push Won't Hijack The Latino Vote Like Hillary Clinton's Immigration Reform Speech Might

Former Florida governor and near-certain presidential contender Jeb Bush celebrated Cinco de Mayo Tuesday by wooing Mexican American voters with a Spanish-language video released via his Twitter account that highlighted his connections to the Latino community. In the one-minute clip, Bush stands on a factory floor and addresses the Mexican American community in Spanish, wishing them a happy Cinco de Mayo and speaking about his family’s ties to Mexico. Coupled with Bush’s recent speeches to Latino groups, the video highlights the coming battle over the Latino vote in 2016. But while Bush might score better than many of his likely GOP contenders for the party’s nomination, Democratic frontrunner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remains a favorite in the Latino community — a standing that she further cemented by coming out in support of aggressive immigration reforms and an end to the Obama administration’s mass detention policy Tuesday.

At first glance, Bush has a personal profile that would appeal to Latino voters. He met his wife, Columba, on a prep school trip to Mexico and has raised two “bicultural and bilingual” children. He studied Latin American Studies at the University of Texas as Austin and spent two years living in Venezuela in his 20s. Bush speaks fluent Spanish, a skill that he already put to substantial use before Spanish-speaking audiences and is sure to play on over and over again in the coming months.

In the Cinco de Mayo video, Bush stresses these personal connections to the "immigrant experience":

The Cinco de Mayo is an honorable date in which Mexico, our neighbor, bravely defended itself against a foreign intervention. Here in the U.S., Cinco de Mayo has become a day where we celebrate our ties with Mexico and the great contributions of the Mexican-American community to our country. For me, this relationship is very profound. My wife Columba was born in Mexico, my family has always had strong ties with Mexico and I have great respect and affection for our neighbors.

Bush’s assertion, in turn, that Americans everywhere are honoring the rich heritage and culture of Mexican immigrants on Cinco de Mayo is questionable. (Unless, of course, getting fabulously drunk on tequila, scarfing down copious amounts of guacamole, and running around in sombreros counts as a proper form of cultural celebration.)

Regardless, the video's release makes it clear just how hard Bush is trying to win over the Latino community ahead of his entry into the 2016 presidential race. Just last month, the former governor has spoken twice in Puerto Rico and to a conference of Hispanic evangelicals in Houston. During his appearance before the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Bush has stressed that the United States cannot simply ignore the problem of immigration reform and has come out in favor of a pathway to legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to live in the U.S.

“It also means dealing with the 11 million undocumented workers that are here in this country, 11 million people that should come out from the shadows and receive earned legal status,” Bush told Hispanic evangelicals in Houston. “This country does not do well when people lurk in the shadows.”

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Over the years, Bush has repeatedly pushed for immigration reforms that would grant some sort of legal status to undocumented immigrants already residing in the U.S., on the condition that the system could be designed in such a way so as not to spur greater illegal immigration. In this, he diverges widely from the rest of the expected GOP primary field for the 2016 presidential nomination.

Of the two other prospective candidates with Latino roots, neither has taken as strong of a stance as Bush. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who is the son of Cuban immigrants, adamantly opposes any immigration reform that would normalize the status of undocumented individuals, including the nearly 2 million DREAMers who were brought to the U.S. as children. In turn, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), also of Cuban descent, championed a immigration reform bill back in 2013 but has largely backed away from his previous position in the months since.

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But does Bush’s play for the Latino vote go far enough? After all, his remarks about creating a pathway to legal status are all well and good, but he has not clearly specified whether he envisions that legal status including citizenship.

Clinton hit on this key distinction in her public appearance Tuesday at a Nevada high school when she came out strongly in support of comprehensive immigration reform:

We can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship. Now this is where I differ from everybody on the Republican side. Make no mistake: today not a single Republican candidate announced or potential is clearly or consistently supporting a path to citizenship — not one. … When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status.

When speaking to students at Rancho High School on Tuesday, many of whom are Latino, Clinton laid out her immigration checklist, calling for a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented and for an end to the Obama administration’s mass detention and deportation policies that have ripped families apart. She also gave her full support to the president’s executive orders on immigration issues, asserting that she would be prepared to go even further with her executive authority if she faced a recalcitrant Congress.

“There are more people like many parents of DREAMers and others with deep ties and contributions to our communities who deserve to stay, and I will fight for them,” Clinton said.

Clinton’s attempts to tack left on immigration reform will position her well as an advocate for the Latino community, which holds considerable sway over the outcome of the presidential contest in 2016. She is also making up for several missteps she made around immigration in the past, including an unfortunate moment during a 2007 presidential primary debate around whether to give undocumented immigrants state drivers’ licenses.

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But her speech Tuesday signals that Clinton is trying to align herself with immigrants’ rights activists and to work on issues that remain urgent for the Latino community, including the deportation policy.

In turn, Bush has publicly stated that he does not support Obama’s executive orders to grant temporary legal status to both undocumented youth and the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens, claiming that those policies represent executive overreach. Nor has he expressed concerns with the administration's skyrocketing deportation rate. Added to that, his support for citizenship has not remained clear and consistent through his career. Back in 1994 when he first entered Florida state politics, Bush responded to a question about what to do with the state’s undocumented immigrant population unequivocally: "start deporting people."

Since his first political campaign, Bush has seemed to waffle between providing undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship and offering them some form of legal status that falls short of full citizenship rights.

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And it appears he will continue to waffle with the GOP primary hanging over him. When Yahoo News asked Bush Tuesday to clarify whether or not his support of “earned legal status” included a pathway to citizenship, a spokesperson responded with old quotes that Bush had offered on the issue, none of which addressed the question head on. When pressed, Yahoo News' Jon Ward writes, spokesperson Tim Miller simply reiterated that Bush supported "earned legal status."

Of course, over the course of the past two elections, immigration reform has proven a toxic issue to the GOP base, particularly when candidates signal that they might be open to granting undocumented individuals the opportunity to acquire U.S. citizenship or legal immigration status. Critics of such measures denounce the initiative to account for undocumented immigrants: Sen. Ted Cruz referred to it as “executive amnesty” in a Politico op-ed last year.

According to a 2015 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 62 percent of Republican primary voters would view candidates that support a pathway to citizenship less favorably. Strikingly, immigration reform proved more unpopular with GOP voters than Common Core, higher taxes on the wealthy, or same-sex marriage.

Likewise, a poll from The New York Times, released Wednesday, demonstrates that immigration reform remains one of the most polarizing political issues for the U.S. electorate, with the division falling largely along partisan lines. A whopping 46 percent of Republicans think that undocumented immigrants should be deported compared to only 16 percent of Democrats. And only 38 percent of the GOP base polled said that they would support a pathway to citizenship.

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Thus, Bush faces an uphill battle to survive the GOP primary while standing up for comprehensive immigration reform. And presuming he clears the rest of the Republican competition, he will still need to convince the Latino community in the general election that he will be a better advocate for their interests than Clinton. The polling data thus far isn’t promising: Clinton led Bush among Hispanic voters, 71 percent to 26 percent, in an April poll from ABC News and The Washington Post.

In 2016, the Latino vote will be more important than ever. According to Fernand Amandi, a pollster at Bendixen & Amandi that worked with Obama’s reelection campaign, the Hispanic vote has grown in key swing states and will be “critically important” for presidential aspirants. As the Pew Center notes, by 2030, the Latino electorate is expected to almost double, jumping from 23.7 million to 40 million voters.

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Devising a party platform around anti-immigration is a losing strategy, demographically speaking, which Bush certainly realizes. But it is hard to see posting Cinco de Mayo videos as anything more than a soft ball that won’t offend the GOP base. At the moment, Clinton might not be hitting anything out of the park with the Latino community, but her performance Tuesday shows that she is ready to start swinging for the fences.

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