Low Latino Turnout Could Hurt Democrats in 2010, Says Poll

Latinos represent America's "most important swing vote" and could decide several key 2010 midterm races. Among these are California's governor's race and Nevada and Florida's senatorial contests.

But with 80 percent of Latino voters saying immigration is important to them, much will depend on how gubernatorial and congressional candidates approach immigration.

Those were the conclusions drawn from a survey of registered Latino voters in 14 states, including Florida, New York, California and Nevada, conducted by veteran pollster Sergio Bendixen.

In particular, the failure of elected officials to tackle immigration reform could sour Latino voters and keep them from casting ballots in November.

"The turnout situation could be a problem for the Democrats and a benefit to the Republicans," Bendixen said at Friday's panel to discuss the poll findings in Washington, D.C.

The poll was commissioned by America's Voice, an immigrant advocacy group, for internal strategizing purposes. But the group decided to release the poll publicly with a view to influencing the immigration debate as it began to heat up this week.

Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., revealed a bipartisan immigration reform proposal, and tens of thousands will march for immigration reform in the capital this Sunday.

Bendixen said the poll numbers show Latinos are still largely positive on Democrats and President Barack Obama, but disappointed with inaction on immigration.

Both Republicans and Democrats have come to understand that the Hispanic vote played a determinant role in recent presidential elections, especially President Obama’s victory in swing states such as Colorado and Nevada, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice. "What's less understood by the political class, quite frankly, is that the Latino vote will make a big difference in 2010," Sharry added.

"It is the most important swing vote in America," Bendixen said of Latinos.

Foreign-born Latinos, he added, are a particularly mercurial voting bloc. In the 2004 elections, they favored President Bush, helping to give him an edge over Sen. John Kerry.

But in 2008, immigrant Latino voters flipped party allegiances, going for Democratic candidate Barack Obama. Immigrants account for roughly half of the overall Latino vote.

"The Hispanic immigrant is the key to this electorate in terms of its swing nature," Bendixen added.

One signal of Latinos' electoral clout is the gradual sidelining of immigration as a wedge issue, said the poll's backers. Hardline rhetoric against illegal immigration lingers as a factor in Republican primaries from New York to California, said Clarissa Martinez, of the National Council of La Raza.

It's also a factor in Arizona where Sen. John McCain is fighting off a challenge from J.D. Hayworth, who has repeatedly criticized McCain for being too soft on immigration.

But in general elections, Martinez said, "the anti-immigration wedge strategy has not really worked."

The America's Voice poll offered a glimpse of why immigration is inextricable from Latino political participation even if it's not necessarily a top day-to-day concern like education and health care. It's because the issue is deeply personal.

According to the poll, 62 percent of Latino voters know a relative, friend or co-worker who is an undocumented immigrant. Only 11 percent of these voters say that undocumented immigrants should be deported or forced to leave the country.

With immigration reform back on the Washington, D.C. agenda, Latino voters will be watching to see which politicians step up and which don't, said Sharry of America's Voice.

"Now, in the months ahead people are either going to come forward or continue hiding behind their desks," he said.


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