Monday, June 2, 2008


The results in Saturday's Puerto Rican primary have led to handwringing about Barack Obama's supposed Hispanic problem. Clinton campaign chair Terry McAuliffe, in another last ditch effort to revive Hillary's candidacy, argues that "It was a 100 percent Hispanic primary and it shows that he has a problem with the Latino community.... He cannot close in this key core constituency."

It's not at all clear that Obama really has a Hispanic problem. A recent Gallup Poll shows Obama leading McCain by 24 points among Hispanic voters in a hypothetical matchup.

And the Republicans are between a rock and a hard place with Hispanic voters. Since the 1970s, when Nixon attempted to capture Hispanic voters with his embrace of bilingual education, the GOP has mostly failed in its attempts to win over Hispanics--Cuban Americans excepted. The Republican hope has been that Latin American immigrants, who tend to be conservative on family, gender, and sexual issues, could be drawn into the "values voter" coalition. But Hispanic Catholics cannot be easily pigeonholed as religious conservatives. Hispanic Catholicism has a strong leftish current running through it, most notably in the grassroots community organizing efforts in Texas, largely funded by the Church. In addition, the Catholic hierarchy has strongly opposed immigration restriction and Catholic clergy and activists have been prominent supporters of the immigration rights movement. As for Pentecostals, a rapidly growing segment of the Hispanic population, they have not generally gravitated toward the religious right. Hispanic Pentecostals have put more energy into individual conversion, healing, and spirit-filled worship than they have toward political activism on the issues dear to conservative evangelicals. The religious right remains overwhelmingly white.

McCain is in a particularly awkward position, having repudiated his immigration reform position to win the support of the GOP base. There are signs that McCain is moving back toward the center on immigration issues as the election draws closer, but he risks depressing the fervor of the still-suspicious right-wing base of his party. The GOP's nativist, xenophobic mainstream can't be won over by any immigration compromise that would abet the Hispanic "menace" to "American" values. And a McCain flip-flop on immigration matters will provide ammunition for those who want to undermine his reputation as a straight talker.

Still there are grounds for Obamaphiles to be concerned. Studies of Mexican-Americans in Chicago and Los Angeles have shown that even immigrant newcomers usually adopt anti-black sentiments relatively quickly upon arrival in the United States. The subtle gradations of color that give race relations in the Caribbean and South America a different form than the one-drop rule that still prevails in the United States mask still strong prejudices against people of African descent. (31 percent of primary voters in Puerto Rico told pollsters that race mattered in their decision). And black suspicion of Hispanic immigrants and worries of economic competition also play a role in fostering intergroup hostilities. But whether these will all add up to problems for Obama is an open question.

Many states with large Hispanic populations (California, New York, Illinois) are likely to go to Obama, regardless of the Hispanic vote. He'll probably lose Texas, unless something extraordinary happens between now and November. (Harold Ickes has made the outrageous argument that Hillary might actually be able to be the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter (1976) to pick up Texas should she be the nominee, but I'll buy drinks for all of my readers if the Democrats pick up the Lone Star state). But the Pew Hispanic Center found that "Hispanics constitute a sizable share of the electorate in four of the six states that President Bush carried by margins of five percentage points or fewer in 2004-–New Mexico (where Hispanics make up 37% of state's eligible electorate); Florida (14%); Nevada (12%) and Colorado (12%)."

Of these, Florida is going to be a tough haul for Obama, unless he makes real inroads into the Cuban vote (unlikely) and wins over those older Jewish voters, usually reliably Democratic, who fear that Obama (despite his record) will sell them out on Israel. Helping Obama might be a depressed turnout in the suburbs and exurbs of the I-4 corridor, where a high turnout among evangelicals and conservative whites pulled Bush over the top in 2004. Obama is showing well in Colorado right now, but McCain's western "maverick" appeal cannot be underestimated. The election's outcome in Nevada might well hinge on the efforts of trade unions (which have made bigger inroads in Las Vegas than in nearly any other city in the country) to get out the Democratic vote. What is clear is that Obama will not only have to think about winning over women, he will also have to carefully craft an appeal to Hispanics in a handful of key states. Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada might be this election's equivalent of Ohio in 2004 or Florida in 2000.