Obama's Latino Mandate

To update one of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's great phrases, "The hands that picked the cotton, and the hands that picked the lettuce, just picked the new president."


    According to the exit polls, if whites alone had voted, John McCain would be president-elect. That gap was erased by Barack Obama's incredible support among African-American voters, who gave him 95 percent of their votes while increasing their turnout to 13 percent of the electorate. Despite idiotic and widespread pundit commentary earlier this year that insisted Latino votes wouldn't vote for an African-American candidate, Latinos in fact gave Obama two-thirds of their votes.

    In other words, Latino voters roughly provided Obama with his victory margin -- both in the popular vote and in the key swing states that flipped from red to blue.

    Almost five years ago in The Nation, our article "Blue States, Latino Voters" made the case that "registering and mobilizing massive numbers of Latino voters in the Southwest and Florida" was key to winning back the White House. Four years ago, just after George W. Bush's re-election, we updated our case, pointing out that reversing narrow defeats in New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado would have won John Kerry enough electoral votes to win the White House.

    Our conclusion then: "The heavily Hispanic states of the Southwest, the 'Cactus Corner,' could be part of a winning strategy in 2008." Well, sí, se puede.

    Look at these numbers that were provided to us by the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, which examined the 2008 Latino vote in thirteen key states. USHLI concluded that 67 percent of Latinos voted for Barack Obama, and only 31 percent for John McCain -- more than a 2-to-1 difference nationwide.

    Seventy-four percent of Latinos voted for Obama in California, 65 percent in Virginia and 72 percent in Illinois. Latinos provided the winning margin in Indiana, with 77 percent, and 63 percent voted Obama in Texas, a very positive trend for the future in that largest of red states.

    In the key swing states of the Southwest, all heavily Latino, Obama racked up hefty numbers: 76 percent in Nevada, 73 percent in Colorado, 69 percent in New Mexico and 56 percent even in McCain's home state of Arizona.

    Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico all flipped from red to blue this year, delivering their electoral votes to Barack Obama by big margins.

    Down-ballot, Nevada elected a new Democratic Congresswoman, as did Arizona voters -- on John McCain's home turf. Colorado elected a new Democratic Congresswoman, plus new senator Mark Udall, son of the former House environmental leader Mo Udall.

    New Mexico went deep blue this year, choosing Obama by double digits; electing Senator Tom Udall, a strong progressive (who is Mark Udall's cousin and former JFK Interior Secretary Stewart Udall's son); and electing a new Latino Congressman from the northern part of the state -- while flipping the other two Congressional districts from Republican to Democratic -- one for the first time ever, the other for the first time in almost thirty years.

    Then there's Florida, where the changing loyalties of younger Cuban-Americans threatened the previously safe seats of three Cuban-American Republicans in the Miami area. Meanwhile, the growing Puerto Rican communities in central Florida voted heavily for the Democratic ticket. The result? For the first time in decades, hatred of Fidel Castro did not guarantee the Latino vote for the GOP in Florida. Instead, 57 percent of Florida Latinos cast their ballots for Obama, helping the Democratic ticket carry the state by a decisive enough margin to prevent a repeat of the stolen election of 2000.

    (One other interesting point, especially for progressives -- the organizing strategy of the Obama campaign came historically out of the United Farm Workers movement. The building blocks of their brilliant grassroots structure had their roots in Latino labor organizing. As did, of course, Obama's wonderful "Yes, We Can!" slogan, a direct descendant of Cesar Chavez's "¡Sí Se Puede!")

    So Latinos came through in a big way in 2008, despite the idiotic pundit predictions. In fact, Latinos cast Democratic votes in just about the same proportion as did young people, more than 2-to-1 for Obama. This is a very hopeful sign, because Latinos are a very young and growing population.

    The Democratic Party should treat these voters very seriously, and nurture the relationship with both young people and Latinos. Policy changes in healthcare, educational opportunity and new "green jobs," changes that improve the lives of Latinos as well as young people, could reap massive vote advantages in key electoral states for years to come.

    Especially when voting in combination with the African-American community, Latinos could be a leading edge of a long-term, center-left political realignment. The "black/brown coalition" vote in this election exceeded one-fifth of the electorate, while the black/brown share of Barack Obama's winning vote exceeded one-third, and served as the foundation of this inspiring victory.

    If demography is destiny, consider these census statistics: the fast-growing Latino population in this country is now about 15 percent of the total. By 2050, only four decades from now, Latinos are projected to double their share of the population. The black/brown share of the US population will be about 45 percent.

    Sí, se puede, indeed.

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