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Obama’s Electoral Dilemma: Latinos or Reagan Democrats?

Though it might have appeared in the early primaries that Barack Obama would be able to transcend race and put together a winning coalition of whites, blacks, and Latinos, that hope has been dashed. If the nominating process has revealed anything, it is that the country is seriously fractured along class and racial lines. Having won the affluent, educated white vote and African American vote and lost the Latino and poor white vote, Barack Obama must now figure out how to reassemble a viable electoral coalition.

It’s a known fact that the Democratic Party has been seriously hemorrhaging conservative, downscale white male voters since the days of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. Disaffected by social and political change, many Blue Collar whites no longer saw the Democrats as champions of their working class aspirations and concluded that the party was instead working primarily for the benefit of others: the very poor, the unemployed, African Americans, and other political interest groups.

By the early 1980s these traditional Democratic urban and rural lower middle class voters, located primarily in the Midwest, turned out for Reagan. Socially conservative, they were attracted by Reagan’s message of moral values, so-called fiscal responsibility and national security. Many of these Reagan Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton during the primaries and probably ate up the news media’s racist handling of the Jeremiah Wright story.

For some time, DNC Chairman Howard Dean has been determined to expand the Democratic Party beyond its usual base in the Northeast, Illinois and California so as to compete with the Republicans on their own home turf as well as in key battleground states. After Obama wins the nomination, there will surely be calls from within the party that the Illinois Senator should try to recapture the votes of the so-called Reagan Democrats.

Scenario #1: Recapturing White Reagan Democrats

In scenario #1, Obama could have Latino New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson campaign on his behalf in the American West but devote the lion’s share of his time and resources into trying to win back Reagan Democrats. By putting a centrist Democrat or Republican on the ticket with military credentials such as Virginia Senator Jim Webb or Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, Obama may hope to win back this voting bloc. Obama could also turn to Senator Jon Tester of Montana, another conservative who appeals culturally to the white male constituency. Yet another option for Obama would be to offer the vice presidential slot to Hillary Clinton in an effort to mend fences within the Democratic Party. Hagel or Tester might make Obama more competitive amongst Reagan Democrats around the country, but both Montana and Nebraska are solidly in the Republican column and would be difficult to tilt. Hillary Clinton might argue that if she were the vice presidential nominee she could put Ohio and Indiana into play, two states that she won in the primary season, or Florida.

If Obama is going to follow the Reagan Democrat strategy, picking Jim Webb of Virginia might be a better choice. Webb is not just a Reagan Democrat wannabe, he is a Reagan Democrat. A Vietnam veteran and former Secretary of the Navy under the Great Communicator, Webb is an anti-war Democrat who would give Obama leverage in Virginia. The state, which has 13 electoral votes, turned out heavily for Obama on primary day and the Illinois Senator did well amongst a range of different voting constituencies there. If you average the recent polls, McCain is winning in the state but not by much.

With Webb on the ticket, Obama could take the state and maybe even make neighboring North Carolina competitive for the Democrats. Right now North Carolina is considered close and Obama won the primary there by a wide margin last month. The southern state, home to Fort Bragg, has a long military tradition and having an ex-Secretary of the Navy could tip the state in favor of the Democrats. If Obama furthermore promised to give John Edwards a position as Attorney General, the former North Carolina Senator might be able to help sew up the state.

In this scenario, Obama narrowly loses the American West and Latinos but does well amongst the Reagan Democrats elsewhere in the country. If we assume that Obama takes the entire Northeast (and New Hampshire stays in the fold) and his home base of Illinois plus the neighboring Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, and he holds on to California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, plus Webb and Edwards help Obama win in North Carolina and Virginia, the Democrats could triumph in the election by a razor thin margin, 270 electoral votes for Obama to 268 electoral votes for McCain. However, if Webb is able to make an impact upon Reagan Democrats in the Rust Belt, the margin of victory could be higher.

Scenario #2: American West Latino Strategy

On the other hand Obama could pursue another strategy. He could deploy John Edwards or Hillary Clinton to the Rust Belt in an effort to woo Reagan Democrats but put the lion’s share of his campaign resources into winning the Latino vote in the American West. Because of the growing importance of the Latino vote in New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, such a strategy now becomes possible (for more on this, see my earlier article: “Obama’s VP Quandary: Time for a Latino on the Ticket? June 2, 2008). What’s more McCain is now vulnerable on immigration having flip-flopped on the issue: in 2006 he was a key sponsor of legislation which sought to regularize the situation of illegal immigrants. Now however he says he’s “gotten the message” that the border must be “secured” before any other reforms can be carried out.

Obama could choose Latino New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson as his running mate which would probably tilt New Mexico to the Democrats and put nearby Colorado and Nevada into play. An African American and Latino on the same ticket would represent a new historic first in U.S. politics. Obama could fly to Albuquerque and deliver one of his eloquent speeches about race. The Illinois Senator could talk about how African Americans and Latinos have both suffered discrimination. He could then argue that it is time for the two groups to band together.

What are the chances that a Western strategy might succeed? Unfortunately, Obama would face some daunting math. Let us suppose that he hangs on to the traditional Democratic stronghold of the Northeast plus New Hampshire, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. If Obama can hold on to these traditional Democratic states and then add Latino states like New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada he would do well but still lose the election with 261 electoral votes against 277 for McCain.

Scenario #3: Latinos in American West and Florida

But consider another scenario: Obama could dispatch running mate Richardson to Florida during the campaign. Though Richardson is from the West, perhaps he might be able to sway Florida’s Latino voters, which now number more than one million, and bring them into the Democratic column. The idea of hinging one’s electoral strategy upon Florida is surely disquieting to the Democrats, but winning the state back is not as crazy as it sounds. At present, the state is leaning in McCain’s direction but still could tilt back Democratic. By November the number of Latino Democrats in the state will probably exceed the number of Latino Republicans for the first time. According to exit polls, the Democrats won the Latino vote in the 2006 mid-term election. It was the first time in 30 years.

Traditionally, the Republicans have locked up the Latino vote by appealing to conservative Cubans. But in recent years Florida’s Latino population has gone through dramatic changes. In 1988, Cuban-Americans made up 90 percent of the Latino vote. Now, that number has fallen to 45 percent. The influx of other Latino groups such as Venezuelans, Colombians and Puerto Ricans, and the deaths of older Cuban-American exiles, account for the changes. In the crucial “I-4 corridor” in Orlando and Central Florida, Latinos are growing in population. Many Puerto Ricans have settled in the Orlando area, taking jobs in the state’s stable tourism industry. Colombians, Nicaraguans and other Latinos have also moved to the area and typically lean Democrat.

The GOP may not even be able to hold on to its traditional base within the Cuban-American community. In Florida, the Republicans are running scared because a younger generation of Cuban-Americans is shedding its traditional loyalty to the GOP. Younger Cuban-Americans are more concerned about the economy, healthcare and the Iraq War than U.S. policy towards Cuba. In addition, Fidel Castro is gone from the scene and as a result the Republicans don’t have their traditional whipping boy anymore. With Richardson on his team, Obama just might be able to turn Florida blue. If Obama carries the American West, the West Coast, some Midwestern states and the Northeast, and adds Florida to the fold, he beats McCain with 288 electoral votes to 250.

Reagan Democrats or Latinos?

So which strategy should Obama pursue, Reagan Democrats or Latinos? From the point of view of simple electoral math, putting Webb on the ticket and going for Reagan Democrats probably makes more sense. The Virginia Senator could potentially help tilt his own state and North Carolina, and might make a difference in swing states Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Richardson could put the West in play but these states don’t have as many electoral votes as the Rust Belt and Upper South. The New Mexico Governor could perhaps help in Florida. But the Sunshine State, despite recent demographic trends, is much more challenging for the Democrats than Midwestern swing states which are closer in the polls. Moreover the last thing the Democrats want to do is rely on Florida to clinch electoral victory: the GOP still has a lock on the governorship, which brings back bad memories of voter manipulation in 2000 under Jeb Bush.

On the other hand, from a political perspective there are serious disadvantages to the Reagan Democrat strategy. History has shown that Reagan Democrats are enormously wary of liberal candidates and are susceptible to right wing media propaganda. Assuming that Webb or someone like him helps Obama win back Reagan Democrats, the Illinois Senator may wind up compromising his politics on the campaign trail and wind up like Bill Clinton, a politician who won the White House but who ultimately caused irreparable harm to progressive politics. By contrast, if Obama put together a new electoral coalition comprised of youth, affluent Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, and actually won, he would end his campaign on a more idealistic note of “change” and have more of a political mandate to move the country away from the conservative politics which have so dominated the Clinton-Bush era.

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