Why the Latino Vote Could Decide the 2008 Election

Election '08
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press).


In California’s 2008 February primary elections, Latinos made up 30 percent of all total voters.

For the first time in U.S. history, Latino voters could play a decisive role in a presidential election this year. If they do, we can thank Cesar Chavez and his protégés.

Why? The UFW pioneered the grassroots campaign model we see in place today.  In the 1968 California Democratic presidential primary, the UFW treated its campaign for Robert Kennedy like a community organizing drive.  How? They went door-to-door in California’s barrios like people did before TV ads dominated politics. Analysts later found the farmworkers’ union’s turnout of Mexican-American voters provided most of Kennedy's narrow margin of victory.

In 1972, the UFW faced a well-funded, grower-backed California ballot initiative, Prop 22. The union set up tent cities to house hundreds of farmworkers who came from the fields to help the campaign. Though heavily outspent, the UFW defeated Prop 22 by over one million votes, again showing its ability to get Latino voters to the polls.

Four years later, the UFW put Prop 14 on the California ballot. It failed, due to poor drafting and timing.  But the campaign trained a generation of activists in voter registration drives, mass petition campaigns, intensive door-to-door and street outreach, public visibility events and Election Day voter turnout efforts.

Sound familiar?  Former UFW Organizing Director Marshall Ganz, who led the Prop Fourteen effort, went on to develop organizing strategies for Barack Obama's campaign.

Today, groups like Mi Familia Vota (MFV), involving such UFW alumni as SEIU leader Eliseo Medina, are active in eleven states. MFV is particularly targeting infrequent Latino voters in Colorado, whose turnout could swing the state---and perhaps decide the presidency. Mi Familia Vota is also working to boost Latino voting in New Mexico, Nevada and Florida, three states that went for President Bush in 2004.

Forty years ago, Cesar Chavez and the UFW began working to increase Latino voting. But the UFW's successful model remained isolated for decades while campaigns relied on expensive TV and radio ads, unlikely to meaningfully boost Latino turnout.  This year, thanks to UFW alumni, its outreach model has been revived and could determine our next President.

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