Latino Vote: si, si, si

The still widely held belief is that while Latinos have surpassed blacks as the nation's biggest minority group, they remain isolated in their communities mostly in California and the Southwest and are alienated from the political process. Recent Census figures convincingly smash that myth. Latinos now make up at least five percent of the population in 30 states. That's double the figure a decade earlier.

Latino political power and influence has spread nationally. During the 2000 election Latino voters numbered 6 million. Black voters were twice that number. The Latino vote was still concentrated mostly in California, Texas and other Southwestern states. The black vote by contrast was spread more evenly throughout the South, Midwest, and Northeast. By 2004, that had changed.

Latinos make up about eight percent of the vote nationally. Three of America's biggest cities, San Antonio, Miami, and Los Angeles have Latino mayors. There are two Latinos in the Senate and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has hit a historic high with 25 members. Nationally, there are nearly 5,000 Latino elected officials.

But it's not the numbers that excite President Bush and the Republicans, worry the Democrats, and cause some consternation among black elected officials, it's where those voters are concentrated and their political significance. The biggest number of Latino voters is in California, Florida, Texas, and New York. These are the key electoral states that virtually determine who will sit in the White House. The number of Latino elected officials has doubled and tripled in Illinois and New Jersey in the past decade. These are the states that black political power has traditionally been the strongest.

Bush strategists figure that if they can bump up their total of Latino votes by as little as just five percent they will hammer the Democrats in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida in 2006. In the 2000 presidential election, Gore and Bush swapped razor thin victories in those states. In 2004, Bush won them all. In the National Survey of Latinos: The Latino Electorate, conducted in 2002 by the Pew Hispanic Center, found that one-fifth of Latinos were Republicans. A recent Time magazine survey found that the Democratic support among Latinos has softened even more.

Republicans are banking on the possibility that even more Latino voters will stampede to the GOP in 2008 mostly because of Bush. His touting of Mexico-U.S. relations, plans to loosen restrictions on undocumented immigrants, and radio broadcasts in Spanish have washed away some of the bad taste that past Republican opposition to affirmative action and immigrant rights left in the mouths of many Latino voters. Bush got more Latino votes than any other Republican president in history in 2004.

The more optimistic among Republicans even talk about giving the Democrats a horse race for the Latino vote in California in 2006. Though the majority of Latinos in past California elections have voted in big numbers for the Democrats, there are some chinks in the Democrats' armor. During the recall election, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger corralled more than a quarter of the Latino vote. Polls showed that many Latinos opposed the measure to give illegal immigrants driver licenses, and also said more should be done to control illegal immigration. The Republicans will play hard with Latinos on moral values. That mostly means stoking the emotional fires on abortion and gay marriage. Polls show that a majority of Latinos oppose both.

In the either/or world of politics, there are winners and losers, sometimes big winners and losers, and that's just as true in the world of ethnic politics. The rush by Republicans and Democrats to court Latino voters touched off nervous jitters among some black politicians and leaders. If Latinos are now the favored minority, as well as the favored political group, the fear is that blacks will be shoved even further to the margin of American politics.

That's a false fear. The growth of the number of black elected officials has slowed, but the total has not dropped. And Bush has sent his point man, Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman, tearing around the country talking to black ministers and hip-hoppers, hoping to increase the Republican share of the black vote in 2006 and 2008. The horrific thought that he might succeed recently prompted Mehlman's Democratic counterpart, Howard Dean, to do a public mea culpa and pledge that the Democrats would no longer take the black vote for granted.

Democrats have said the same thing before and promptly reneged on that promise in their mad dash to try and beat Republicans at their own game and get more white votes -- which they've failed miserably at doing. Still, blacks will continue to draw much attention from the Democrats if for no other reason than to beat back Mehlman's efforts to rope more of them into the Republican fold.

But it's the Latino vote that both parties desperately want. And they want them because now they know there's more of them than ever to be had.

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