Obama Looks to Power of Latino Vote
By Dan Balz
Barack Obama waited until the very end of his speech to the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Tuesday to get to the transactional part of his message. It was a challenge to the Latino community to fulfill its potential as a force in American politics.
"During the immigration marches back in 2006," he began, "we had a saying: 'Today we march. Tomorrow we vote.' Well, that was the time to march. And now comes the time to vote."
Obama has two challenges in the race against John McCain. The first is to win over Latino voters in a way he was not able to do running in the primaries against Hillary Clinton. The second is to awaken the sleeping giant that is the unfulfilled potential of the Latino vote. If he can do both of those things, his path to the White House will be considerably easier. The first may be easier to accomplish than the second.
Across all the primaries, Obama lost the Hispanic vote to Clinton by 61 percent to 35 percent, but he appears to have made significant progress in converting Hispanic support for Clinton to himself now that she is out of the race. In the most recent Gallup poll, he leads McCain among Hispanics by 2-1--62 percent to 28 percent. That puts him slightly above the support John Kerry received in 2004 and almost at the level Al Gore got in 2000.
Democratic Hispanic leaders have quickly swung behind Obama, regardless of where they stood during the primaries. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson backed Obama over Clinton before the primaries ended. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was tireless in his support for Clinton during the primaries, took a red eye to Washington Monday night to deliver the introduction for Obama at LULAC. Former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros, who first backed New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and later shifted to Clinton, now enthusiastically supports Obama.
President Bush was very successful in cutting into the Democrats' margins among Hispanics in his two elections. In McCain, Obama faces one of the few Republicans who might be able to come close to Bush in appealing to the Latino community, and if he is able to do that, he can keep the general election close. Right now, McCain is falling short.
As Gallup's Jeffrey M. Jones put it in his analysis last week, "While George W. Bush made a strong push for the Hispanic vote in the 2000 and 2004 elections, McCain faces an uphill climb to attract Hispanics' support, given their consistent and solid support for Obama in recent months."
What can make the real difference is Obama's ability to generate considerably larger turnout among Latino voters. Hispanic voters have the lowest voter registration rates of any racial constituency other than Asians. According to the Census Bureau, just 58 percent of eligible Hispanics were registered to vote in 2004, compared to 75 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 69 percent of blacks.
Once registered, Hispanics turned out in significant numbers, but still lagged behind non-Hispanic whites, blacks and Asians. In 2004, 82 percent of registered Hispanics actually voted, compared with 89 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 87 percent of blacks and 85 percent of Asians.
So there is an enormous potential payoff to Obama and the Democrats if they can successfully register a significant share of the millions of eligible unregistered Latinos. Obama cited the case of New Mexico to drive home his point to the LULAC audience. In 2004, Kerry lost New Mexico by 6,000 votes, but 40,000 registered Hispanics did not turn out to vote. The 6,000-vote margin, he said, represented a small fraction of the number of Hispanics in New Mexico who are not even registered.
"While I know how powerful a community you are, I also know how powerful you could be on November 4th if you translate your numbers into votes," Obama said.
California already has witnessed the seismic shock of a surge of Latino voting. After then-governor Pete Wilson's 1994 reelection campaign, in which he made the anti-illegal-immigration ballot initiative as a political rallying cry (an initiative that then-governor George W. Bush did not support), Latino participation in California elections increased dramatically.
That has helped make California so safely Democratic in presidential elections that Obama boasted to LULAC that Democrats would "stomp" the Republicans there in November.
In the same way Obama's advisers are focused on increasing African American registration in states like Georgia and North Carolina, his campaign will be looking to do the same among Latinos in places like New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. If they are successful, Obama will have the clear advantage in all three states -- none of which went for Kerry four years ago.
But as Obama noted, the promise of Latino political power has long gone unfulfilled. Their numbers continue to rise in the population, but they have yet to fully flex their muscles. The immigration marches in 2006 drew millions into the streets -- many of the demonstrators were illegal immigrants who cannot vote, but many were no doubt eligible but unregistered.
The challenge Obama outlined to LULAC was aimed not just at his own campaign, but at the Latino community itself. Whatever the partisan implications, fulfilling the promise of full political participation remains an unmet goal for the fastest rising segment of the population.
Web Politics Editor
July 9, 2008; 3:43 PM ET
Categories: Dan Balz's Take
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