One of the latest surprise developments in the US presidential campaign is the apparently strong lead that Barack Obama now holds over John McCain among Hispanics, a key voting constituency that Obama lost overwhelmingly to Hillary Clinton in the primaries.
Some observers unfamiliar with Hispanic voting patterns had expected Obama to have difficulty winning over Latinos against McCain. First, there is the presumed "anti-Black" bias of some Latinos, which, though often cited as gospel, has yet to be substantiated as a voting influence by any reputable polling organization.
Second, there is the argument that John McCain has vastly superior name recognition to Obama, plus a more established - and generally favorable - track record on issues near and dear to Latinos, most notably comprehensive immigration reform which McCain championed while still in the Senate.
But a recent spate of Gallup tracking polls suggest that Obama's supposed Latino "problem" is largely a myth. Most of these polls show Obama receiving 55-60 percent of the Latino vote, compared to at most 30 percent for McCain. Even if most of the undecided were to swing to McCain before November, some say that the battle for the Latino vote is already over.
But the reality is far more complex. First, no Republican GOP presidential candidate has ever won a majority of the Latino vote, yet even with a smaller share, these candidates have managed in the past to do well enough among Hispanics to ensure victory in the high-density Hispanic states that really count: the so-called "swing" states, including Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, where a combined 46 electoral votes hang in the balance.
In these four states Hispanics comprise between 13 percent and 36 percent of the electorate - far more than their 9 percent share nationally. In 2004, George Bush carried each of these four states by less than 5 percent, and in Colorado, by a mere 60,000 votes. In other words, a shift of just a few percentage points in the Hispanic vote could effectively decide the presidency.
Despite Obama's apparently strong lead nationally, available polling in the swing states suggests that the Latino vote is still up for grabs. In fact, surveys conducted by the highly respected Hispanic pollster, Sergio Bendixen, who now works for Obama, indicate that a majority of Hispanics in Florida -- arguably the most important swing state with 26 electoral votes -- still lean toward McCain, a key factor in McCain's slight polling lead over Obama in Florida.
Moreover while Obama leads McCain by almost 2-1 in two other swing states, Nevada and New Mexico, as many as 30 percent of Latinos in Colorado are still undecided, according to surveys conducted by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, or NALEO.
McCain's polling numbers in Florida eerily parallel what George Bush accomplished there in 2004 when he won 56 percent of the Latino vote. Moreover, it's important to remember that Bush only won 30-38 percent of Latinos in Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado and he still managed to carry all three states. If McCain can capture half or more of the current undecided Latino vote in these same states, he would be similarly well positioned to win them in November - if all other factors remain equal.
But that's probably a big "if." First, Latinos are far more discontented with Bush and the GOP in 2008 than they were in 2004, and indeed, on key issues like Iraq and the economy, they are even more discontented than the electorate in general. Part of the reason is that Hispanics serve in the military in large numbers -- and their families are bearing a huge brunt from the war. Likewise, when the economy sags, Latinos are especially hard hit.
Second, if the primaries are any indication, Hispanics are far more likely to be at the polls this November expressing their discontent. Latino voter turnout is already up a record 42 percent over 2004, far surpassing percentage increases among other groups, including African-Americans.
And just to make sure it stays up, Obama recently announced an unprecedented $20 million ad campaign on Spanish-language TV and radio designed to win over the undecideds and get them out to vote. He's also sending canvassers to the swing states to try to boost Latino voter registration, which still lags behind other groups by a substantial margin (60 percent compared to 72 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 68 percent for African-Americans).
That's in sharp contrast to John Kerry, who, like Obama, had a 2-1 advantage with Latinos in the summer of 2004 but abruptly stopped campaigning for their votes in the final two months of the race. In the end, a late surge of undecided Hispanic voters swung sharply behind Bush, who finished with a record 44 percent of the national Hispanic vote and a second term in office.
Obama may not have enough trust and standing with Latinos to earn the 72 percent Bill Clinton won during his re-election in 1996. But with private money to burn, and with McCain hamstrung by public financing limits, he has the best chance of any Democrat in years of winning sufficient Latino support to capture at least 3 of the 4 swing states Ã¢â‚¬â€� and with them the presidency.