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Obama’s VP Quandary: Time for a Latino on the Ticket?

Barack Obama has a problem: having done poorly amongst Latino voters in primary contests, he now faces the very real possibility that he could lose this crucial constituency in the General Election.

He can ill afford to do poorly amongst Latinos come November.

Latinos now make up a larger share of the U.S. population (15.5%) than they did in 2004 (14.3%). In fact, at 46 million strong Latinos are the nation’s largest and fastest growing minority group. They also a make up a growing share of the eligible electorate—8.9% in 2007, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, compared with 8.2% in 2004. What’s more, according to the Pew Hispanic Center Latinos increased their share of the primary vote in many states between 2004 and 2008.

The Democrats look at Latinos and see opportunity. About 57% of registered Latino voters now identify as Democrats or say they lean to the Democratic Party, while just 23% align with the Republican Party. This adds up to a whopping 34 percentage point gap in partisan affiliation among registered Latinos.

This gap, fueled by Republican bluster on illegal immigration, has been steadily increasing over time: in 2006 the difference was just 21 percentage points – whereas back in 1999, it had been 33 percentage points. In 2004, Bush got about 40% of the Latino vote, a record for a Republican candidate. But with Latinos leaving the GOP in droves, Democrats are thinking payback.

Nevertheless, Latinos’ electoral clout is undercut by the fact that many are ineligible to vote, either because they are not citizens or not yet 18 years old. In 2008, Latinos will comprise about 9% of the eligible electorate nationwide. If past turnout is any indication however, Latinos won’t vote en masse: experts project that Latinos will only constitute a disappointing 6.5% of the turnout come November.

Key Battleground States: Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada

So if Latino turnout is so low, why are the Democrats so concerned about this constituency? To answer the question one need only look at the electoral map: Latinos live primarily in key battleground states that the Democrats want to flip from the Republicans. Of particular interest for Obama is the American West. At this point it looks like the Illinois Senator may have his work cut out for him in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, states with large Latino populations.

In Colorado most recent estimates from the 2006 U.S. Census indicate that Latinos make up almost 20% of the state’s population. The state recently elected a Latino Senator, Ken Salazar, and the Democrats have chosen Denver as the site of their upcoming convention. In 2000 Bush won the state by almost ten points. Four years later Bush still won but this time his lead was cut in half. The state has nine electoral votes.

In New Mexico Latinos dominate even more, accounting for 44% of the population. In some cities such as Las Cruces and Santa Fe they make up as much as 50%. In recent years the state has become a true battleground: in 2000 Gore won New Mexico by a razor thin margin. In 2004 Bush won the state by a small but safe margin. In 2008 the Democrats are going to have to turn out Latino and Native American voters, two of their traditional constituencies, if they wish to capture the state’s five electoral votes.

By most recent census data, Nevada’s population is about 25% Latino. Las Vegas’s population is skyrocketing and Latinos represent a formidable presence in the city. Historically, Nevada has gone Republican but the Democrats hope to turn the state into an electoral battleground. In 2000 Bush won Nevada but only by three points; four years later it was much the same result against Kerry. The state has five electoral votes.

From Great Unifier to Polarizing Figure

Four months ago, it looked as if Obama might be able to bridge the color barrier and appeal to Americans of all different racial backgrounds. Following his electoral victory in the Iowa caucus, Obama addressed his white supporters. “They said this day would never come,” he said. Obama then remarked upon his own unique racial heritage which included “a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.”

It was probably only a matter of time however before the issue of race would burst forth and poison the political landscape. Obama ran a deracialized campaign which sought to avoid the impression of overt blackness. Aspiring to be a Great Unifier, Obama probably hoped that race would simply disappear from the presidential race.

It didn’t.

On February 5 (Super Tuesday), racial divisions were on vivid display as Latino voters turned out for Clinton en masse. By the end of the day, Clinton had amassed 63% of the Latino vote to Obama’s 35%. Clinton’s biggest win amongst Latinos was in her native New York, where she drew 73% of the vote. The only state where Obama nailed the Latino vote was Illinois, but even there it was a virtual draw 50% to 49%.

One of Obama’s core strengths during the campaign has been the youth vote, but tellingly on Super Tuesday young Latinos were not as likely to vote for the Illinois Senator as white and black youth. Meanwhile, 28% of Latino voters on Election Day said that race was important in reaching their decision. Of those voters, a full 64% voted for Clinton while 35% voted for Obama.

In many other primaries held since Super Tuesday the Latino vote was inconsequential, but Clinton’s dominance of the Latino vote continued on Sunday in Puerto Rico. Hillary trounced Obama 68% to 32% on the island. That’s a slightly greater percentage than Clinton got on Super Tuesday, perhaps due in part to her name recognition and status as New York Senator where many Puerto Ricans reside.

On the other hand, race apparently played a role: according to CNN exit polls 31% of Puerto Rican voters said race was a factor in their vote, and of those 63% voted for Clinton and 37% for Obama.

Obama’s VP Stakes

Perhaps if Puerto Rico had voted in February, prior to the Jeremiah Wright affair, Obama would have done better. Unfortunately for the young Illinois Senator, Hillary has played the race card and now Obama must try to reverse the impression that he is somehow “foreign” in the eyes of many voters—including Latinos.

One way that Obama might hope to limit the political damage thus far is by picking New Mexico’s Latino Governor Bill Richardson as his running mate. Such a move would certainly represent a historic landmark in U.S. politics and inspire minority voters. With Richardson on the ticket, Obama could really put the West into play and reconfigure the entire electoral calculus. By pursuing a “Western Strategy” instead of a “Southern Strategy,” Obama could put together a new coalition of blacks, Latinos, and affluent whites.

There are drawbacks to such a scenario however.

Partly as a result of the Clinton slime machine, which injected race into the electoral contest, Obama now has a problem amongst not only Latinos but also poor whites. If Obama picks Richardson he may help flip New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado but ultimately wind up losing Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

The Illinois Senator, who sought to overcome race at the beginning of the campaign, is now in a bind. Perhaps, fearing an electoral debacle in the Rust Belt and Appalachia, Obama will pick a kind of Blue Dog, centrist white running mate with a military background such as Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska or Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. By doing so, Obama may hope that poor whites and Latinos will forget all about race and Jeremiah Wright and come back to the fold. He’s got a lot of lost ground to make up amongst these key voters.

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