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Libre Initiative volunteer Felipe Rodriguez-Otero, left, distributes informative pamplets to Blanca Prado, center, and Margarita Guerrero March 2. / Ana Zangroniz for USA TODAY

After writing a story about Hispanics applying for U.S. citizenship and registering to vote, I got a note from a reader asking why they weren't being arrested instead.

I explained that I was referring to Hispanics who hold green cards and are eligible to become citizens. His response: "Sorry. Thought they were illegal."

The misunderstanding highlights a broader lack of understanding in this country of the makeup and characteristics of the Hispanic population. That comes across most clearly during election season, when political parties try to court what is the fastest-growing segment of the American population.

While many feel the failure to connect with Hispanic voters is a purely Republican problem, a fascinating new report shows how it actually permeates both parties.

The report, written by the centrist Democratic think-tank Third Way, shows how the GOP has adopted "simplistic and stereotypical views" of Hispanics - that they're mostly poor, uneducated and, as the reader mistakenly assumed, undocumented.

But the report also blames Democrats for taking the Hispanic population for granted and viewing it as a one-issue monolith focused solely on immigration.

With the 2014 elections looming, the presidential race already underway and the Hispanic electorate growing larger each day, now is the time for both parties to reassess their approaches.

Hispanics have been fleeing the Republican Party ever since President George W. Bush received 44% of the Hispanic vote in 2004. GOP legislators tried to pass a bill in 2006 that would have made illegal presence in the U.S. a felony, enraging Hispanics around the country.

The 2012 Republican presidential primaries saw candidate after candidate competing to show just how tough they could be on undocumented immigrants. Remember when one-time front-runner Herman Cain suggested the U.S. build an electrified fence along the border with Mexico? Or when eventual candidate Mitt Romney proposed that we make life so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they choose to "self-deport"? He got 27% of the Hispanic vote.

Michelle Diggles, author of the Third Way report, says Republicans showed how little they've learned when the Republican National Committee released a report analyzing why Romney only got that 27%. Rather than focus on understanding the community better, Diggles says their lone solution was passing legislation to deal with the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants.

"It would be good to do that," she says. "But that wouldn't solve their problem with the Hispanic community, because they value more than just immigration."

She's right. During each election, Hispanics rank the economy, jobs, education and health care higher than immigration as their most-important issues. And that's where Democrats are also missing the mark.

There's no question Hispanics favor the Democratic Party. Ever since Republicans pushed that 2006 immigration bill, the percentage of Hispanics who identify as or lean Democrat has increased, from 49% to 70%.

But the longer Hispanics live in the U.S., the more their views evolve. For example, 81% of recent immigrants favor a larger government that provides extensive services, while only 58% of third-generation immigrants feel the same way.

Diggles says Democrats have failed to recognize such nuances and have instead become complacent, assuming they will forever retain the Hispanic vote. Meanwhile, GOP leaders have been working to improve their outreach efforts, and some of the fastest-rising stars of the Republican Party are Hispanic.

So even though President Obama continues protecting more undocumented immigrants from deportation and congressional Democrats push for a comprehensive immigration bill, Diggles sees a party that is "resting on its laurels."

The only certainty regarding Hispanics in America is that they will continue growing more quickly than any other group. Now it's up to each party to figure out how to win their votes.

Gomez is a Miami-based correspondent for USA TODAY.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Voices: Struggling to connect with Hispanic voters

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