Why Did John McCain Lose the Latino Vote?

The massive movement of Latino voters to Obama has baffled some pundits and intrigued others. John McCain is arguably the most pro-immigrant Republican in the Senate and he took sometimes heroic stands in opposition to his own party's evolving anti-immigrantism. He was a frequent guest at Latino banquets and won awards from many major immigrant organizations.

Meanwhile, Barak Obama was clearly not the choice of Latinos during the primary season. I remember Obama's first test with this key demographic during the Nevada caucus. CNN televised a live caucus at a casino in which Hillary supporters were told to stand to the left and Obama backers took up the right. Almost all the Hillary fans were Latino. In primary after primary, Hillary considerably out-polled Obama among Latinos. Some commentators suggested that Hispanics had an antagonism towards African-Americans which precluded their support for a Black man.

So what happened to dash McCain's hopes of besting the 40% of the Latino vote that George Bush achieved?

Here are my ideas:

1. Some McCainiacs were sure that Latinos would not vote for a Black man. Liberals hoped that the same group would turn out for Obama as a ceiling-breaker, opening doors for non-White candidates. Both missed the way Latinos looked at Obama's ethnicity. Many Latinos did not see the election of Obama as an advance for all non-Whites. But they did come to identify with him as the son of someone who came from someplace else. Latinos have to often juggle the issue of having their hearts in two worlds. Obama's backstory, which seemed rootless to many conservatives, actually was similar to the lives of millions of Latinos, immigrant and native born. The Obamiad itself reminded them of their own stories.

2. The primaries were vicious and drawn out and Latinos did back Hil 60% to 40% but not for reasons of race. Bill clinton is incorrectly remembered by Latinos as "good on immigration" and correctly remembered as supporting democratization and development in Latin America. He was also extremely open to the Hispanic community. Hil got a lot of Bill's reflected glory in this community as well as credit from Latinas for her ground-breaking advocacy for women.

Latinos were not, bye and large, voting against Obama. They were supporting a family they viewed as their champions for more than a decade.

As the primaries went on, unlike many White Clintonians, Latinos did not become angry at Obama. They still voted against him, but they also got comfortable with the idea of him as president in a way they couldn't have had he wrapped the thing up in March. At the same time, the long primary season increased interest in voting tremendously in the Latino community as folks were convinced that their individual votes could really help determine who the next president was.

3. McCain's pro-immigrant stand hurt him with his base, but why didn't it help him with Latinos? How could a stand-up guy like hime do so much worse than Bush? Here, we have to look far beyond the four corners of this campaign.

In 2005 the Republican Party decided for tactical political reasons that anti-immigrantism was the only red meat that would sustain the party core through the 2006 election. Nasty ads like this one from failed Congressional candidate Vern Robinson proliferated. Republicans in the House passed legisaltion that would have tossed people like me in jail for providing help to immigrants regardless of their legal status. The Republicans said they were not anti-Latino, just anti-illegal, but they peopled their ads with pictures of brown men who could have been of any legal status but who were clearly Latino. And this assault on the Latino community and questioning of Latino loyalties and legality continued right up to March of this year. Then, just because McCain was the Republican nominee, Latinos were supposed to forget their wounds and vote for Juan. And, remember, by this time McCain himself was a diminished figure. He had once stood strong for the rights of immigrants, now, at the insistance of winger primary voters, he said he wouldn't even vote for the pro-immigrant bill he himself had authored.

Some commentators say that Latinos have proven ungrateful for McCain's leadership on immigration, but in reality, Latino voters have just watched this thing unfold a lot more closely than their Anglo counterparts. In the end, Latino voter liked 2007 John McCain who was the architect of comprehensive immigration reform. They were put off by 2008 John McCain who offered platitudes about Latinos being "children of God". Sorry John, Latinos already knew that without you saying it.

4. Bill Ayers and the whole culture wars thing just doesn't cut it with Latinos. Latinos are a younger demographic. Most of them came of age after the 1960s were over. A lot of them immigrated here in the last couple of decades. To them, The Weathermen are a meteorlogical association.

5. Whacky ministers like Rev. Wright don't scare them. Lots are evangelicals and they are pretty used to firebreathing preachers. Catholic Latinos are likely to brush off Wright as a "Black thing".

6. But the Number One reason Latinos turned their back on McCain is George Bush. Like everyone else, Latinos are worried about the economy and they view the war as a failure. They blame Bush for the messes. And they have a special grievance. They are particularly upset that Bush has launched huge immigration raids in their neigborhoods and at their workplaces this year. They wonder if John McCain, surrounded by Bush cronies, will just continue the perceived war against Brown people. With McCain indelibly branded as Bush's successor, the turn toward Obama is eminently understandible.

Other exit poll analysis

Califonia's Asian-American Vote

Latino Vote in the Southwest

Florida's Latino Vote

Anti-Immigration Activist Defeated on East End

Read Immigration 101 for a lively look at the laws and policies that shape the future of American immigration

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