Swinging the Latino Vote
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President George W. Bush offers undocumented immigrants temporary work permits. The Democrats may choose a governor with Mexican heritage as a vice presidential candidate. And some have actually labeled the Feb. 3 Democratic primaries, "Hispanic Tuesday."
Are we Latinos the new "soccer moms"?
The new swing voters have last names like Gonzales or Lopez. They care as much about education and the economy as the warmth of a particular candidate's personality. And most pollsters say their votes are key to victory in November.
President Bush's immigration reform proposal is widely seen as a way to court the Latino vote. Democrats may respond, according to rumors among political journalists, with a Latino vice presidential nominee in the fall -- possibly Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
As the primary presidential race moves out of the "retail" politics of Iowa and New Hampshire and into the multi-state primaries on Feb. 3, it will move closer to the population that the main parties have identified as a swing vote.
Arizona and New Mexico are two of seven states that will make their decision Feb. 3. Both have sizable Latino populations and are considered battleground states: places where the parties will fight it out in the fall, where the vote was close enough in 2000, especially in New Mexico, that nobody can be assured victory.
According to pollster Sergio Bendixen, the Latino vote could decide the election in states like Arizona, Nevada and Illinois. It could also be key in New Mexico and Florida, where the non-Cuban Latino population is growing.
"Latinos are no longer a base vote for the Democrats," says Maria Cardona, who heads the New Democrat Network. The organization seeks to convince the Democratic Party that it must not take the Latino vote for granted, the way some critics have said the party treats the African American vote.
Until very recently, Democrats knew that with the exception of Florida, where the sizeable Cuban American population is solidly Republican, they could count on Latinos' votes. In 1996, Bill Clinton won 71 percent of the Latino vote, to Bob Dole's 21 percent.
Besides, Latinos were then just 4 percent of the vote nationwide. And they were a significant part of the population only in states that have not been battleground states for many years, such as California and New York.
Then, in 2000, along came George W. Bush, speaking Texas "spanglish" and promising to take care of immigration and build close ties with Latin America. Al Gore still received most of the Latino vote, but the Democratic share fell to 62 percent, a 10 percent decrease. Thirty-five percent of Latinos who voted chose Bush.
Furthermore, in 2000, Latinos were 7 percent of the national vote. They will be closer to 9 percent in 2004. Karl Rove, president Bush's main political strategist, has predicted that Bush must get 40 to 45 percent of their votes in 2004.
Bush isn't far from that: While his support among Latinos has dropped in recent years because of the state of the economy and his failure to live up to his promises on Latin America and immigration, he has climbed in recent polls, which show the president earning 37 percent of the Latino vote in 2004. And he has barely begun to campaign.
"If Bush gets what Rove is looking for, there's no way a Democrat can win this election," pollster Bendixen said last year, when he warned Democrats to improve their image among Latinos or risk losing their chance at the White House.
The New Democrat Network last year released the results of a hypothetical 2002 presidential match-up between Bush and an unspecified Democratic candidate, and found President Bush was getting 44 percent among Hispanic voters.
After ignoring immigration for most of his post-9/11 term, Bush resuscitated the issue in early January, offering a proposal for immigration reform and taking it to the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, where it was welcomed by Mexico's President Vicente Fox.
In the meantime, all the Democratic candidates have their own version of immigration reform, have hired Spanish-speaking and/or Latino consultants and are increasingly talking bread and butter issues that resonate with Latinos.
The battle stretches beyond 2004.
According to Efrain Escobedo, a voting data expert from the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), the Latino population and its share of the vote is increasing not only in traditional states such as New York, California and Southwestern states, but in Georgia, Virginia, Washington, Oregon and Pennsylvania as well.
Latinos may not yet be a significant share of the vote in some of those states, Escobedo says, but that could change quickly.
"In the south, Latinos are already are up to 3 percent of the vote," he says.
Some experts say Latinos will not be important this year because their votes are concentrated in non-competitive states such as California, which usually votes Democratic.
But according to Escobedo, if the electoral college results are close, as current polls predict, every swing state will have a potentially great impact. And Latinos, the new swing voters, are rapidly increasing their influence in many of those key states.
PNS contributor Pilar Marrero ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is political editor and a columnist for La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles.