Hispanics could put Obama over the top

/ Source: NBC News

If Barack Obama goes on to win the election, there will be plenty of ink and video spent on chronicling the historic nature of the turnout among young voters and African-Americans.

But as important as both constituencies have been to Obama — particularly in the primaries — it's Hispanics that could be putting him over the top on Nov. 4.

Obama's dominance among Hispanics in the West is proving to be the difference maker in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. In addition, the increased numbers of non-Cuban Hispanics in Florida, as well as the growing Hispanic population in North Carolina and Virginia, could be the tipping voting group in those three states.

So how did this happen? When this general election began, there were three pieces of evidence cited to develop the conventional wisdom that Obama would under-perform with Hispanics:

  • He lost Hispanics by very wide margins to Hillary Clinton in the primaries.
  • John McCain's efforts to fight his party on the issue of immigration, in addition to his Southwestern political roots, would win him votes with Hispanics.
  • Hispanics are perceived to be hesitant to vote for black candidates. Of course, there was only anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon in a few big city mayoral contests.

As it turns out, Clinton won the demographic because she courted them heavily and used Bill Clinton to campaign as a familiar advocate for Hispanics.

As for McCain, despite his best efforts (as well as that of President Bush and Karl Rove), the Republican brand has been tainted, potential for the long-term, due to the negative tone of the immigration debate that took place on conservative talk radio and in the presidential primaries.

In fact, McCain's immigration stance was so damaging that it is what nearly derailed his candidacy in mid-2007, not Iraq as the campaign sometimes likes to claim.

McCain ended up backing off a bit on his immigration stance. And to many Hispanics, it may have looked like McCain chose his party over his convictions on the issue.

As for Hispanics' willingness to vote for African-Americans, this was about as tested of a premise as the so-called "Bradley effect." Too many analysts went with their gut or with one example in one big city, rather than truly examining whether there was prejudice between Hispanics and blacks.

So here's what we know, Obama has held a strong lead among Hispanics for weeks. In our NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, we've been oversampling Hispanic voters all year so we could track this important demographic.

For weeks, Obama's been at 65 percent and McCain's hovered around 30 percent. If Obama nabs just 62 percent or better of Hispanics, he'll surpass the Gore total from 2000. And right now, he seems virtually assured of that.

Anything 65 percent or above for Obama probably locks in the three western battlegrounds of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, narrowing McCain's path to 270 that much more.

Could McCain have changed this? On paper, the answer is yes but in reality, maybe not. While the Arizona senator was careful to trumpet his immigration stance to Hispanic audiences, he rarely talked about it in other venues for fear of raising the ire of conservatives who had been riled up on the issue by talk radio.

McCain already has been down this road once before; He didn't want to do it again. But, long term, the GOP really does have a growth issue. As Karl Rove preached in 2006, the GOP cannot afford to start losing Hispanics by the margins they lose blacks.

In fact, take out Cubans and George Bush's over-performance among Texas Hispanics, and Obama could be getting close to making Hispanics — more or less — a base Democratic voting group.

The long term consequences of this Hispanic problem for the GOP isn't just about this electoral map, it's about its future in a number of states, most importantly Texas. At a 65-30 clip among Hispanics, or potentially a 70-30 ratio of winning Hispanics, Democrats could start to see Texas within reach by 2016.

There's no easy solution for Republicans. Wooing Hispanics is going to start with simply looking less scornful of immigrants. McCain never acted or looked scornfully at illegal immigrants, but the perception among Hispanics is that his party has.

In addition, the real opening for the GOP with Hispanics won't be with culture issues (though a few inside the GOP insist this is the case). The real opening for the GOP is with the party's rhetoric on small businesses. If the party can go back to being the party of small business and the party of the entrepreneur (which it isn't right now) then they should find themselves back in the game.

But as long as the party is painted as hostile to Hispanics, they are unlikely to listen to other GOP policies with which they might agree, like taxes and abortion.