Obama's Clues to Wooing the Latino Vote

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 13, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- One of the key questions emerging since Sen. Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination is whether he will be able to woo Hispanic voters, a significant segment of the electorate in several battleground states. Sen. Hillary Clinton frequently beat Obama 2-to-1 among Latinos during the primary.

The most optimistic argue that the migration to Obama will come naturally -- and that Hispanics favored Clinton because of better name recognition. Now in the general election, when the choice is between a Democrat and a Republican, a majority of Hispanics will no doubt flock to Obama. Recent Gallup Polls show Obama winning 62 percent of Hispanic registered voters nationwide, compared with 29 percent for Republican Sen. John McCain.

Even those more skeptical concede that at least a majority of Latinos will vote Democratic in November. At their height of popularity, Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush garnered around 40 percent of Latino votes. But 62 percent of Latino support may not mean much if a large portion of those supporters lives in states that Obama is already expected to win.

What the skeptics understand is that all Latino votes are not created equal. Those in battleground states where Latinos represent a sizable portion of the electorate, such as New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and Colorado, are far more important to both candidates. And it is these states where McCain could connect with enough Latinos to make a difference.

Name recognition will continue to be a challenge for Obama among Latinos. To them, McCain has the second best known "brand" -- after Clinton -- and they "feel they know him," according to Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza. As a key sponsor of legislation creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and as a longtime Senator from Arizona, where nearly 30 percent of the population is Hispanic, McCain has built a good track record with Latino concerns.

McCain's problem will be the tarnished reputation of his party. Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, points out that nothing may affect him among Latinos as much as the "R" beside his name. While McCain will remain sufficiently moderate on immigration, despite some politically expedient tips of the hat to certain segments of the conservative base, the GOP's association with hard-line measures is a galvanizing force among Latino voters. While only half of them are immigrants, most have come to see the anti-illegal immigrant crusade of the last three years as an anti-Latino movement.

In the mid-1990s, the combination of anti-illegal immigrant and anti-affirmative action measures in California (propositions 187 and 209, respectively) and welfare and immigration reforms at the federal level, all attributed to Republicans, helped turn many Hispanics against the GOP. In California, according to Harry Pachon, president of the California-based Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, young Hispanics voted as much as young whites in the 1996 presidential election, something that was "unheard of" before. And in Florida the same year, more Cuban-Americans voted Democratic for the first time -- due to welfare reform, said Munoz.

That kind of electoral reaction suggests that Latinos don't just vote for someone they identify with -- but that they also cast protest votes. Although issues such as education, health care and the economy rate as higher priorities for the Latino electorate, immigration is the great mobilizer that brings them to the voting booth.

Obama does have his work cut out for him among the nation's largest and fastest growing minority, and his campaign has begun trying to broaden that support. Early this month it ran an ad in Puerto Rico in which Obama speaks Spanish and attempts to personally connect with citizens there by reminding them that he was also born on an island.

But it may turn out that Obama's best allies for getting out the Latino vote will be Bush's Homeland Security Department and media personalities that live to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment. While the immigration issue has faded from the presidential campaign, the increase in raids throughout the country -- the number of undocumented immigrants arrested at workplaces rose more than sevenfold between 2002 and 2006 -- and the continued pounding of the issue in primetime by Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck will keep it very much alive for Latino voters. And that will only benefit the Democrats.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.

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