Video: Campaigns court Hispanic voters

msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 2/8/2008 8:06:40 AM ET 2008-02-08T13:06:40

For decades, much has been said about the potential power of Latino voters, but rarely has their impact lived up to expectations.

This year is different, according to political analysts and leaders of Latino activist organizations. While many Latinos like and admire both of the leading Democratic candidates for president, these authorities say, their years-long connection to former President Bill Clinton could deliver the party’s nomination to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

The problem is not with Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, said respected Latino political analysts, who rejected as a too-easy stereotype the suggestion that Latino voters would not vote for Obama because he is a black man.

“That is an argument without foundation,” said Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.

Falcón and others pointed to several indicators of Obama’s popularity among Latinos, noting the large and enthusiastic crowds he attracted in Latino neighborhoods in the days leading up to the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses and pointing out that he won among Latinos in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.

Obama, meanwhile, points to polling trends that show his popularity among Latinos rising over time, saying, “As Latinos get to know me, we do better.”

Roberto Lovato, former executive director of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, said: “The more people get to know Obama in the Latino community, the more they like him and the more they’re inclined to vote for him.”

“The big story in the Latino vote is that Hillary Clinton’s Latino advantage — her firewall, if you will, according to the mainstream media — is starting to decrease,” Lovato, a writer for the liberal magazine The Nation, said in an interview on the public radio program “Democracy Now!”

Clinton cleans up among Latinos
But it had not increased in time to make any serious inroads into Clinton’s support among Latino voters on Tuesday. Across all 24 contests, Clinton won 64 percent of Latino votes to 34 percent for Obama, exit polls indicated.

In California, the biggest prize of the night, Clinton did even better, polling 67 percent among Latinos to 29 percent for Obama. That support was amplified by a record turnout of Latino voters, who made up 30 percent of the Democratic electorate, nearly double their representation in the 2004 primary — a showing “unprecedented for Latinos in any state,” said Albert Camarillo, director of the Center for Comparative Study in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University.

“Hillary Clinton would not have won had it not been for the margin that Latinos gave her here,” said Octavio Pescador, a political analyst at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Similar effects were seen in other contests:

  • Clinton took 68 percent of the Latino vote Tuesday in New Jersey, which she won with 54 percent of the overall vote.
  • In New Mexico, Clinton’s razor-thin 49 percent-to-48 percent lead over Obama (provisional ballots are still being tallied and the full vote may not be counted until Feb. 15) was powered by her 56 percent support among Latino voters, who made up 43 percent of the electorate.
  • In the Nevada caucuses last month, Clinton won 64 percent support from Latino voters, enough to push her to a slim winning majority of 51 percent.
  • Even in Illinois, Obama’s home state, which he won with 65 percent of the vote, Latinos split their support, preferring Obama by 50 percent to 49 percent.

“Without the Hispanics, Clinton does not win,” Adolfo Carrión, president of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, said in an interview with the Spanish-language news service EFE.

Votes for Clinton, not against Obama
In exit polls, Latino Democrats gave Obama high marks for his leadership qualities and the freshness of his ideas, but even though they said they would back him in the general election should he win the Democratic nomination, they gave their votes in the primaries and caucuses to Clinton.

Roberto Suro, a professor at the University of Southern California and former director of the Pew Hispanic Center, said Clinton had a 15-year head start on Obama in cultivating support in Latino communities thanks to the popularity of her husband, who was able to maintain a 70 percent approval rating among Latino voters even at the height of his impeachment battle in 1998.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Latinos remembered the Clinton administration as “great years for working families.”

“They were years when the minimum wage was raised, the years when we invested in housing,” Villaraigosa said. “So a long history is what it comes down to.”

Clinton also got a faster start in targeting Latino voters in her campaign, the first to be run by a Latina, Patti Solis Doyle.

Early on, Clinton lined up endorsements from a wide array of influential Latino figures, including Villaraigosa; Henry Cisneros, the first Latino mayor of a major U.S. city, San Antonio, before becoming housing secretary in Bill Clinton’s administration; Raul Yzaguirre, founder of the National Council for La Raza; Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey; and Dolores Huerta, the legendary activist who helped organize the farm workers with César Chavez —whose brother, Richard Chavez, also endorsed Clinton.

Kennedy’s impact questioned
Obama began a targeted Latino outreach much later, countering with a highly publicized endorsement from Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, a popular figure in the Latino community.

Video: Obama gets big endorsement “He got a lot of play for Kennedy,” acknowledged Ace Smith, Clinton’s California campaign manager. “But we had an intensive surrogate effort that went on for a month.”

Other analysts questioned the significance of Kennedy’s endorsement, noting that much of his appeal lay in reminding voters about his brothers, President John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Many voters, Latino and otherwise, were born after 1968, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and have little or no firsthand memory of the brothers, but they have vivid memories of Bill Clinton.

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Clinton “worked hard for a long time to capture the Hispanic vote,” Suro said. “Obama’s own advisers admit they left a little bit to be desired in their pursuit of the Hispanic vote.”

‘Too late’ for Obama?
All that could add up to trouble for Obama in Texas, whose primary is March 4.

John Garcia, a specialist in Latino politics at the University of Arizona, said the closeness of the Democratic race amplified the significance of Clinton’s advantage among Latinos. Latinos comprise a third of the state’s voters, compared with African-Americans, who have turned out in equally large proportions for Obama but make up only 11 percent of the Texas electorate.

Roberto de la Garza, a specialist in Latino politics at Columbia University, told EFE that “it’s too late” for the Obama campaign to make up the lost ground.

“The reality is that [Obama] has not been much in touch with Hispanics,” he said.

By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Telemundo and NBC affiliates KNBC of Los Angeles; KNTV of San Francisco; KOB of Albuquerque, N.M.; KVBC of Las Vegas; WHEC of Rochester, N.Y.; WMAQ of Chicago; and WTHR of Indianapolis contributed to this report.

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