What if the Latino vote stays home?

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Thursday, October 7, 2010

At least one key group -- Hispanics -- will probably vote heavily Democratic in November. But the party will have only itself to blame if not that many Hispanics turn out.

Two authoritative polls released this week show that the Hispanic vote may hit historical high marks for the Democrats. The Pew Hispanic Center gave the party a 65 percent to 22 percent lead over the Republicans among registered Latino voters. Latino Decisions, a weekly tracking poll by Matt Barreto of the University of Washington and Gary Segura of Stanford, put the breakdown at 58 percent to 19 percent.

If the undecided stay home or break proportionally under either projection, the Democrats could surpass the 67 percent of the Latino vote won by Barack Obama in 2008. The GOP may do worse than John McCain's dismal 31 percent.

That's the good news for the Democrats. The bad news is that a high percentage of a few votes doesn't help much. Though many Democratic candidates are up against the wall, both polls find limited Latino enthusiasm to come out and save them.

Only half of the respondents told Pew that they were "absolutely certain" to vote, a full 19 points behind all registered voters. Latino Decisions found that voting intent is rising a little, yet just 41 percent of respondents said that they were "very enthusiastic" to turn out. In 2008, Latino participation was high, swinging many elections.

These two polls are crucial because they are about the only ones that regularly focus on Hispanics and use bilingual interviewers. What both show is how poor a job Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress have done of reaching out to Hispanics.

To be sure, the Republicans have done worse. They have fallen far since the days when simpatico Hispanophiles such as George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan could get nearly half the Latino vote by stressing family and immigrant work values. Today's Republicans too often demonize immigrants and, by extension, tar all Hispanics.

But as Barreto said to me of Democrats, slamming Republicans isn't enough to get the vote out. "The Democrats have to do something positive, and that is what has been missing," he said.

Only in recent weeks have the Democrats taken on immigration reform, haphazardly introducing a last-minute amendment to a military bill to legalize undocumented young people who enlist in the armed forces or go to college. It failed. Even in health-care reform, the Democrats ignored Hispanic pleas to extend the benefits to more legal immigrants as well to offer bilingual services.

Obama and Congress obviously were sidetracked by the economic crisis, but only a quarter of Hispanics polled told Pew that the administration's overall policies have been "helpful" to them.

Latinos make up more than 15 percent of the population, and they were 7.4 percent of 2008 voters. But more important politically is their especially large role in heavily populated states such as California, Texas and Florida and swing ones such as Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.

In California, the races between Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina for the Senate and Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman for governor are essentially tied among non-Latino voters, according to a poll by the Los Angeles Times, Latino Decisions and the University of Southern California. Democrats Boxer and Brown, however, were leading overall, and the difference was almost entirely due to Hispanics. They make up 19 percent of California's electorate.

But Brown's race is tight, reflecting what the Democrats do wrong. Brown has invested almost nothing in Latino media, while Whitman, who has a Latino running mate, pumps out the Spanish-language TV ads.

Of course, she has to. The Spanish media have been beating her up over how she callously fired her longtime maid, an unauthorized immigrant, as Whitman prepared to run for office.

The number of Latino undecideds in that race is so high and the Latino support for Brown so shallow -- 15 points lower than Democratic affiliation -- that the Whitman ads might be enough to keep many Latinos from voting for either of them. She would benefit.

As Barreto said, "The vote is there for the Democrats, but Latinos aren't going to turn out for the Democrats just because."

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is edward.schumachermatos@yahoo.com.

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