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Where Do Latinos Go Now?

New America Media, News Analysis, Marcelo Ballve Posted: May 16, 2008

Editor's Note: Latino voters, who supported Sen Hillary Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin in the primary elections, could face a different choice in November if Clinton is out of the race. Latino media and blogs are speculating about where these voters would go in a face-off between Barack Obama and John McCain.

No one has bragging rights over the Latino vote, not yet. And after the massive immigrant rights marches of 2006, the old token "tamale politics" won't work if they ever did.

With Sen. Barack Obama emerging as the probable opponent to Republican Sen. John McCain, the Latino media and blogosphere have been abuzz with speculation on how the two might fare head-to-head.

Obama did poorly among Latinos against Sen. Hillary Clinton (On Super Tuesday, Latinos voted for Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin). The conventional wisdom has been that he is woefully vulnerable in this demographic. But McCain is not necessarily ideally positioned, according to Los Angeles political columnist Pilar Marrero.

"Both candidates come to the competition with certain disadvantages. No one can say they have this vote in their pocket," she writes in La Opinin, the nation's largest Spanish-language newspaper.

Latinos are certainly attracted to McCain's "independence, his convictions, his courage and his moderate stance on issues," writes Ruben Navarrette Jr., a syndicated columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune. Not to mention "his heroic suffering as a prisoner of war."

It remains to be seen, though, how McCain comes down on the immigration question, which he has waffled on since co-sponsoring failed immigration reform legislation in 2006. In the primaries, desperate to avoid being outflanked to the right, he reneged on his once-clear support for comprehensive reform. Speaking in Arizona on May 5 (the "Cinco de Mayo" festivities), McCain tried out what seems to be a new angle: blue-collar Latinos, he said, are harmed by the inflow of undocumented immigrants, and should be sympathetic toward securing the border before demanding an integral solution.

Marrero of La Opinin concludes: If this divide-and-conquer approach is McCain's Latino strategy, "I wish him luck."

For his part, although buoyed by the endorsement of New Mexico's Latino governor Bill Richardson, Obama has been fighting a perception he did too little, too late in reaching out to Latino voters.

On the Hispanic Trending blog, which carried an online interview with Obama, among the first questions was: "Why did your campaign take so long to proactively reach out to Hispanics?" Obama skirted the question, providing a laundry list of his Latino outreach efforts. But the point was made.

In Obama's own bailiwick of South Chicago, blogger and journalist Gregory Tejeda spelled out this frustration. Obamas focus on gaining African-American votes and that of the youth of America have created the perception amongst Hispanic people that Obama doesnt care about their situation."

Obama can point to some victories: he won the Latino vote in the Iowa, Virginia and Illinois primaries. The Mexican-American vote has proven most difficult for him, even in his home state of Illinois, but there is still no clear evidence that this trend wouldn't shift in a general election. Gallup polling published May 1 showed Obama with a 57 percent to 33 percent advantage over McCain among Latinos, suggesting that with Clinton out of the way, Obama would recoup at least some Mexican-American votes.

He should hope he does, because Mexican Americans are crucial in three battleground states that President George W. Bush carried by a margin of 5 percent or or less in 2004: New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada. Latinos could potentially swing all of these states, as well as Florida, where the right-leaning Cuban American vote has been diversified by second- and third-generation voters and new arrivals from Puerto Rico and Central America.

Latino voters will only make up an estimated 9 percent of the total electorate in November, but their importance, like that of independents, lies in their ability to change their minds. While falling short of a true swing vote, it is a fast-shifting electorate. In 2004, Bush, positioned as a wartime president, won 40 percent of the Latino vote. By 2006, after the failure of immigration reform torpedoed by Republicans' anti-immigrant wing, things had changed. Only 30 percent of Latinos voted for Republican candidates in 2006.

The difference between the results, only two years apart, shows how much is at stake in 2008. What's certain is that Latinos will be building blocks in any victory, so it's important for candidates not to be tempted to use immigration as a wedge issue, argues Janet Murgua of advocacy organization National Council of La Raza. Although Latinos overall are more concerned about the economy and the war, their sensitivities on immigration are raw, especially since hate crimes and apparently punitive federal raids against immigrants are on the rise. After the mass marches of 2006, the safeguarding of immigrants undocumented or not became a civil rights issue in these communities.

Another post-2006 lesson: The old token campaign gestures won't work. It's not enough to eat some ethnic food, mumble words in bad Spanish, and pose for photos with Latino community leaders.

I think the time has passed for tamale politics, Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, was quoted as saying in Congressional Quarterly. People have become much more attuned to what candidates do, not just what they say, he added.

That's certainly the case with California superdelegate Steven Ybarra, who on May 9 went public with an unconventional ultimatum: he would choose between Obama and Clinton depending on who gave him $20 million to register Latinos, a voter drive he said could mean the difference between victory and defeat and also make up for years of under-funded similar efforts. Underlying Ybarra's demand was his frustration common among Latinos that there's little substance in efforts to court them.

"I am going to ask the candidate where is our place at the table," he wrote in March on Latino political Web site Hispanicvista.com. "Because we are tired of just cooking, cleaning up, and getting blamed when the party goes bad."

Related Articles:

Beyond Black and White: Ethnic Media Respond to Obamas Call for Dialogue on Race

The Latino Vote Is Not in the Democratic Bag--Yet

Everyone's an Expert on the Latino Vote, Except Latinos

Univision Debate: Republicans Make Hard Sell to Latinos

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