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Getting Latino Voters Is Obama's Big Challenge

The continuing reluctance of Latino voters to back black candidates could have a blowback effect on Obama.
 
 
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A confident Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama shrugged off the buzz that he'd crash and burn with Latino voters, "Not in Illinois, they all voted for me." But not so fast; there was this retort from a reader, yeah, but you ran against Alan Keyes. Keyes, being the luckless and hapless Eleventh hour Republican political sacrificial lamb who Obama annihilated in his smash victory for the U.S. Senate in 2004. But this time around, Obama faces a far bigger opponent than Keyes could ever hope to be, or even for that matter archrival Hillary Clinton. It's the 'Nevada Phenomenon.' It poses a far bigger danger to Obama's White House drive than even the much debated 'Bradley Effect.'

The Bradley Effect is named after former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley who lost his bid for California governor to a white opponent in 1986, though Bradley had big leads in polls. Many white voters told pollsters and interviewers that they had no problem voting for an African- American, but once in the privacy of the voting booth voted for his white opponent.

The 'Nevada Phenomenon' by contrast has nothing to do with the supposed penchant for white voters to deceive pollsters and interviewers on race. In the South Carolina primary white voters went in reverse. The polls had Obama winning only ten percent of the white vote but in his smash win he more than double that percentage. The 'Nevada Phenomenon' instead is the mix of wariness, fear, indifference and even hostility of the majority of Latino voters toward a black candidate.

It is more troublesome and intractable than potential white voter resistance to Obama. Even though in South Carolina and other Deep South primary states Obama lags behind Clinton among white voters, he's still likely to get a respectable percent of white votes. That's not true with Latino voters. Obama's poll popularity with Latinos hasn't budged very much despite his heightened name identification, media boost, energizing change pitch and personal charisma. And if the history of black candidates, even popular well known and victorious candidates that ran for office and bombed with Latino voters is any indication, Obama won't do much better than they did.

Start with the politician that gave the 'Bradley Effect' its dubious tag. During his 20 year reign as Los Angeles mayor, Bradley won election five times, and built a solid coalition of black, Jewish, and suburban Anglo white voters. However, Latino voters played only the barest of bare roles in Bradley's coalition and elections. Even though Latinos then made up nearly one-third of the city's population and were a rising percent of the voters, Bradley made few direct appeals to Latino voters for support.

Since then the political polarization between Latino voters and black candidates has been a virtual trademark in every other race where a black candidate has squared off against a white or Latino candidate. In 1993, Rudolph Giuliani, a tough law and order, conservative Republican running in heavily Democratic New York city against liberal African-American Democrat David Dinkins got nearly forty percent of the Latino vote. Nearly a decade later, Lee Brown, the former New York City police commissioner, got less than 30 percent of the Latino vote in his run-off race against Orlando Sanchez for Houston mayor. The even more popular, veteran former Congressman Ron Dellums received barely thirty percent of the Latino vote in his race for mayor in Oakland against a Latino challenger in 2005.

In each case the black candidates won their races with overwhelming support from black and substantial support from white voters. Their challengers were conservative Republicans or centrist Democrats. They actively courted the Latino voters, and even won the important endorsements of prominent Latino elected officials and business leaders. That did little to dent the vote barrier between the majority of Latinos and the black candidates.

In Nevada, the pattern was the same. Obama got the endorsement of the leaders of the heavily Hispanic Culinary Workers Union. But getting the vote of the rank and file union workers was a far different matter, as the subsequent vote showed. Latino voters, many of them almost certainly members of the culinary union, defied their leaders and helped propel Clinton to victory.

This was yet another danger sign that the continuing reluctance of Latino voters to back black candidates could have a blowback effect on Obama.

The Super Tuesday primaries on February 5 will be a big test for him with Latino voters. Their numbers have soared in the key primary states of New Jersey, New York, Florida and his home state, Illinois. So much so that the black vote, even assuming that he will grab a far bigger share of that vote than Clinton, and split the white vote, will not insure an Obama victory. The Latino vote looms as the X factor for him. Unlike the subtle, much harder to finger 'Bradley Effect', the 'Nevada Phenomenon' is an open challenge to any black candidate that needs Latino votes to win. Obama is now the black candidate that faces that challenge, and danger.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

 
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