Hispanic Voters: The Ronald Reagan Legacy and Leadership Opportunity

Public Opinion Strategies conducted a set of special focus groups among Hispanic voters in Las Vegas, NV.  Each group was conducted among 12 respondents for three hours, allowing us to use different projective techniques and a much deeper dive into opinions and beliefs than traditional focus groups.  While the groups were conducted in English, they were moderated by a Spanish-speaking discussion leader.  This is the first in a series of blog posts on the key findings of the groups.

For many Hispanics born early enough to remember, Ronald Reagan provides some of their earliest – and most positive – memories of “Republican.”  Our groups asked participants to search the recesses of their memories and for many, the imprint of Ronald Reagan is one of their earliest and strongest memories.  Words or phrases they use to describe Reagan include: “family values,” “real connection to people,” “he had cojones,” “he didn’t mess around” and “was respected by the world.”  Even those too young to remember have a similar sense from their conversations with family or study of the Reagan era.

The Reagan leadership style as described by these focus group participants parallels their generic description of what they look for in a leader or someone they would want to follow:

  • Someone with a backbone.
  • Someone with a voice, a strong person.
  • Someone with values.
  • Honesty
  • Someone who can communicate with compassion
  • Someone who can communicate across diverse cultures and has lived in their shoes.

By these focus group respondents’ measure, Reagan met most of these leadership characteristics.  Today’s higher profile Republicans are “too rich” to really understand the working class that largely define the Hispanic community.  One woman’s very early imprint of “Republican” was the mansion where the owners of the meat packing plant lived who employed her father for just sixty cents an hour.

But Democrats fall short on this leadership dimension as well, lacking the “backbone” or fortitude many in the group felt was essential in defining strong leadership.  They really do not see Democrats as “putting their foot down” and digging in to “deal with the important issues.”

Our focus groups showed video clips of speech segments of different Republican leaders from across the country (each topics of future posts).  They saw Republicans talking about issues in ways they did not expect.  Minds were opening.

These Hispanic voters were aware of Republican efforts to “re-brand.”  They say the Republican Party is “getting it” and perhaps trying to change, even thinking beyond the “old, white men” that have come to define the party stereotype in looking to leaders like Marco Rubio, Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez.

But, they are also impressed with the conviction and passion of other non-Hispanic Republicans as well, praising Governors Chris Christie and Jeb Bush for their respective comments about Medicaid expansion and education reform.  Specifically, they see Christie as “human, caring about his people, compassionate.”  They like how he “calls it like he sees it” and “does what he thinks is right.”

But they say … he’s just one person.

For Republicans, perceptual change will mean a much greater personalization of our politics.  Just like they felt connected to Ronald Reagan, today’s Republicans need to connect better as real people, not party platforms.  They were also drawn to Reagan’s strength, honesty and conviction.  While they may not have agreed with him on all issues, they appreciate a leader who makes them feel protected.

The groups were encouraging in many ways.  Sure, there was some Republican bashing.  But we’ve heard enough of that following this last election.  Time to find a better way forward.  And it is possible.

Click here to see other posts in this series.

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