2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Latinos' Clout Emerges in Big Vote for Clinton

 

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Mike Swift and Julia Prodis Sulek
2/7/08 San Jose Mercury News 11A


An unprecedented surge by a unified bloc of Latino voters powered Hillary Clinton to victory in the California primary Tuesday, allowing Latinos to shape the trajectory of a presidential race for one of the few times in American history.

Has the large and growing Latino population whose national political clout rarely reflects its numbers finally arrived?

''The sleeping giant has awakened. The Latino vote is here,'' U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, told reporters Wednesday. ''They really showed their colors here. Well over 71 percent in my district voted for Clinton.''

''They are kingmakers,'' said Al Camarillo, a Stanford history professor. ''You saw that decisively for Clinton last night.''

Latinos made up a record 30 percent of all Democratic primary voters in California; they make up about 20 percent of the state's registered Democrats, said Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo. They went for Clinton by more than a 2-1 ratio. Latinos went decisively for Clinton in other states as well, helping her to victory in Arizona and to a near-equal split of delegates in New Mexico.

''This is really historic, Latino voters coming out in higher proportions than their registration,'' DiCamillo said of the California result. In the 2004 presidential election, a lower share of Latino adults voted in California than any other ethnic group, Census Bureau records show.

A history lesson

Experts caution that it's a gross oversimplification to view the diverse Latino population -- immigrants and native-born, English and Spanish speakers, with roots in countries across Latin America and Europe -- as monolithic.

But even though their influence may be greatly muted in the general election because of the dynamics of the electoral college, the California primary showed that Latino voters, after years of emerging promise, have finally become more than just a swing vote.

Historians said there are only a few times when Latino voters played such a pivotal role in a presidential election.

In 1960, Latinos helped swing Texas to John F. Kennedy. And in 1988, Texas Latinos helped swing the Democratic primary to Michael Dukakis, allowing the Massachusetts governor to argue that he could win in the South, even though Jesse Jackson and Al Gore carried most Super Tuesday states in the South, said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Latino studies at the University of California-Irvine.

Clinton's consistent edge over Barack Obama among Latinos in multiple states Tuesday ''suggests a connection across the nation for Latinos, but also success by the Clinton campaign in targeting them,'' DeSipio said. But there is still time for Obama to better tailor his message to Latinos before the Texas primary, he said.

The voter registration drives that followed immigration protest marches of 2006 may have played a role in the Latino voter turnout in California and other states, Latino leaders said, playing on negative feelings from Proposition 187, the voter measure that denied social services and health care to illegal immigrants.

Dolores Huerta, a longtime labor activist who co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez, said Latinos were motivated to vote for Clinton as a protest to the last eight years of poor education and health care as well as a growing anti-immigrant sentiment. Huerta was already in Texas on Wednesday, campaigning for Clinton in preparation for the March 4 primary.

The Bill Clinton years

''I think our community has been under attack and this is their way of fighting back,'' said Huerta, 77, co-chair of the Clinton campaign's Hispanic national outreach effort. ''They remember the Clinton years were better years, and they respected Hillary. Obama has no history here.''

Others said the racial identity politics that have marked the last generation of national politics are waning. From former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, to Southern California congresswomen like Maxine Waters, whose district has double the number of Latinos than blacks, there are many examples of Latinos supporting black politicians.

Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research & Education Institute at Stanford, said many of his students have never even heard the loaded 1980s racial stereotype of ''the black welfare mother who has a Cadillac.''

Increasingly, Carson said the quality of a candidate's message to an ethnic group and many other factors -- not racial identity -- determine voter choice. He added, ''If Barack Obama spoke Spanish, the election would be over.''

Yet others acknowledge there is some political tension between some Latinos and some blacks, namely fear of a finite pool of resources that minorities must share.

''Some of us are trying to sweep that under the table,'' said Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University and director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles. ''I think a very, very small segment of the Latino community has a tough time supporting an African-American candidate . . . but the vast majority of Latinos are not in that category.''

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