Courting the Latino Vote: It's about more than immigration.

In mid-July in San Diego Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican Party nominee for president, will attend the annual convention of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest constituency-based Hispanic organization. His appearance there is just one of many efforts that McCain is making to court Latinos, a group that in the 2004 election proved essential to President Bush’s victory. Latino votes will be critical to the winner of the next presidential election as well.

The Republican Party has seen an increase in Latino votes over the years, especially in general elections, but that statement needs to be placed in context. A majority of Latinos have remained within the Democratic Party, but the Democratic lead was shrinking for some time—until 2006, when the Latino move toward the Republican Party reversed itself, primarily over the direction and the tone of the immigration debate, which has offended many Latinos, both native and foreign-born.


Ironically, 2006 was also the year both houses of Congress passed legislation to build a fence along the Mexican-U.S. border and Senators McCain, Clinton and Obama all voted in favor of it.

Politics aside, the demographics are shifting as Latinos settle in states beyond the Southwest, often in the Midwest and South. But even in states that already have large Latino populations, significant changes are taking place. Beth Reinhard of The Miami Herald reported on May 9 that increases in Democratic voter registration in Florida show immigration from Latin America and younger generations of Cuban-Americans to be “diluting the influence of the older Cuban-American community,” who in the past had voted Republican.

Latinos and John McCain

Even so, Senator McCain represents his party’s best shot at attracting Latino voters. He not only understands Latinos, particularly those in the Southwest, but last year, with Senator Edward Kennedy, co-sponsored an immigration reform bill that would have laid a “pathway toward citizenship” for undocumented immigrants, had it not been defeated in the Senate. McCain has spoken compassionately about the plight of unauthorized immigrants. As Marcela Sanchez has written for, McCain “reminds people that just as with other waves of immigrants, Hispanics have ‘enriched our culture and our nation.’” And there are other issues to consider. McCain, a Baptist, supports traditional religious and family values, a position that attracts Latinos like those who voted for President Bush (see sidebar, pg. 23).

McCain has a good track record with Latinos. In this year’s Republican presidential primaries, he won a majority in the five states with the largest Latino electorates—California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois. In his 2004 Senate re-election bid, McCain did extremely well in Arizona, his home state, where he won 70 percent of the Latino vote. If McCain could get half that much support in the general election in November, predicts Ruben Navarrette, a columnist and writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune, “McCain could win the White House.” Navarrette thinks character draws Hispanics to McCain; they like “his independence, his convictions, his courage and his moderate stance on issues.” Writes Navarrette, “The fact that McCain is so patriotic is a draw for many Latinos.”

Still, McCain may face difficulties in attracting Latinos. He walks a tightrope on immigration, an issue he may choose to play down. After hearing boos from conservatives in Michigan in February, McCain has stressed tightening border controls first, before reintroducing immigration reform. To appeal to non-Latino conservative voters, he must address employer sanctions, identity cards, government sweeps, the fence along the Mexican border and swift deportations; but to appeal to Latinos, he must advocate a path to citizenship for the 9.6 million unauthorized Latinos now living in the United States.

The Senator must also convince Latinos—at least those in critical swing states with significant Latino populations—that his party cares about their concerns. That may take some doing. According to “Hispanics and the 2008 Election: A Swing Vote?” a report by the Pew Hispanic Center, 57 percent of registered Hispanic voters either call themselves Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party. And most indicated that the Democrats show far more concern for Latinos than do the Republicans.

Hurdles for the Democrats

There may be a silver lining to this cloud, however. If race and an antipathy between Latinos and blacks turn out to be as significant as some predict, then Senator McCain may find himself kissed by the gods in facing Sen. Barack Obama as his opponent in the general election. Analysts have shown that in elections where there are both black and white candidates, Latinos tend to favor the white candidate. Advantage, McCain. If, however, Senator Obama finds ways of appealing to Latinos (or if Latinos transfer to him the support they have shown Senator Hillary Clinton), then he may be able to break the old pattern and capitalize on the increased Latino support for the Democrats and participation at the polls. Obama has the support of Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the first Latino of any major party to run for president, as well as of the granddaughter of Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers union.

Despite the gains the Democrats made in the 2006 Congressional race and in state elections since then, and despite the Latino turnout in the primaries, the Democratic Party is not taking Latino loyalty for granted. By April 2008, according to the Johns Hopkins Hispanic Voter Project, Senators Clinton and Obama had spent $4 million, a record amount for Democrats, on Spanish-language advertising to rouse Latinos—the registered Democrats, the young first-time voters and the independents. That same month the Democratic National Committee set up a Hispanic Leadership Council to strategize and communicate specifically with Latinos.

The party’s current task is to seize the considerable momentum shown by Latinos in support of Senator Hillary Clinton. In the primaries on Super Tuesday and later in Texas and Puerto Rico, she won the Latino vote 2 to 1 over Senator Barack Obama. As Senator Clinton departs from the race, the party must ensure that it can close any resulting Latino loyalty gap. Senator Clinton herself could do much to build party unity specifically among her Latino constituents. Since Obama won a Latino majority in only four primaries—Illinois (by a mere 1 percent lead over Clinton), Connecticut, Virginia and Colorado—he will have to put Latinos at the top of his priority list.

Building Broad Latino Constituencies

The nominees of both major parties will no doubt consider choosing a running mate who appeals to Latinos, though at the same time they must unify their disparate party members behind them. Both will have to court the growing number of Hispanic evangelicals and make concerted appeals to Latinas, since Hispanic women vote in greater numbers than Hispanic men (“Feet in 2 Worlds,” blog entries by Lorenzo Morales, 3/13 and 4/1).

According to Pilar Marrero, a senior political reporter and columnist for La Opinión in Los Angeles, the nation’s largest Hispanic newspaper: “Both candidates [McCain and Obama] come to the competition with certain disadvantages.… No one can say they have this vote in their pocket.” In a podcast she made for “Feet in 2 Worlds,” a Web project of the New School in New York City, Marrero said: “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We’ll see…Latinos are voting very Democratic this time around, and I find it hard to believe that John McCain…will attract a lot of Latino voters; he’s pro-war and Latinos are very anti-the Iraq war….” Marrero also said, however, that Obama would have to fight very hard for the Latino vote, even though “race is not the main motivation of most Latino voters.”

Whichever political party succeeds in building Latino support in 2008 will take home a valuable prize. For the Latino population (now 47 million) is growing steadily. Latinos make up 9 percent of the eligible electorate nationwide. Largely because of language and cultural differences, however, Latino turnout at the polls tends to be lower: the Pew Hispanic Center has predicted Latino turnout to be around 6.5 percent of all who actually vote in 2008. Latinos are currently the single largest minority group in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, though the very notion that Latinos make up a single ethnic group obscures the reality. Most Latinos in the United States today are Mexican, but the term “Latino” pertains to a diverse group of nationalities and cultures and, as it might become increasingly clear, more than one or even two political viewpoints.

In political terms, Latinos still make up a large portion of voters in four of the six most contested states in the 2004 presidential election (New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and Colorado). This year, Latino influence will likely be even greater because, since 2004, the number of Latino registered voters has grown by 4 million (to 18 million). Their turnout at the polls, although historically weak when compared to African-Americans and whites, has also grown. Some Latino leaders are predicting a record turnout among Latinos in November.

Since the Latino vote is expected to be critical in swing states again, one can expect to see massive voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote projects in Latino communities. And if the last two presidential elections are any guide, one can also expect negative advertising, unsubstantiated accusations and disinformation campaigns—some of them aimed squarely at Latino voters. In Orange County, Calif., during the 2006 election, Latinos were falsely warned that an incomplete or out-of-date voting certification would be seen as voter fraud and prompt their deportation. In a tight election, which 2008 is expected to be, watchdog groups of all types will need to monitor and expose any such voter-intimidation schemes.

Another impediment to Latino participation is a backlog of 1 million naturalization applications that, government officials say, cannot all be processed by November. That bureaucratic problem will keep many potential voters away from the polls. But that’s not all. Proposals are now being placed before voters in 19 states that would make more stringent a state’s voter-registration requirements, demanding, for example, a birth certificate and/or passport. The initiatives come in the wake of the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Indiana photo-identification requirement for voter registration. Should voters pass such laws? Do they solve legitimate local problems? Or are they partisan efforts to limit voter registration, especially by minorities, the poor and the elderly? These are issues the voters must decide. Such referendums, if passed, would likely limit voter participation by African-Americans and Latinos (a majority of whom are Democrats), as well as many others.

Finally, although immigration is a critically important issue to Latinos, not all Latinos agree on what makes the best immigration policy. For that reason, it may not serve the interests of either candidate to bring the issue up gratuitously.

The most significant factor to consider is that immigration does not even rank among the top three issues for Latinos, according to surveys. Rather, Latinos have named the same top three issues as have voters of both parties in general: the economy, the war in Iraq and health care. It is telling, then, that in May Senator McCain released a new Spanish-language Internet ad: McCain, Plan Económico. Perhaps the best strategy for both candidates in appealing to Latinos would be to eschew distractions, schemes and negative attacks, and to focus squarely on the issues of most concern to the whole electorate.

Sidebar: "Which Latinos Voted for Bush in 2004?"

Listen to an interview with Karen Sue Smith.

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10 years 5 months ago
In her article "Courting the Latino Vote," Karen Sue Smith writes, "Obama has the support of Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the first Latino of any major party to run for president..." Though Senator Obama may have the support of Governor Richardson, Governor Richardson was not the first Latino of any major party to run for president. Governor Richardson is certainly the first Latino of the Democratic Party to run for president, but the distinction of being the first Latino of any major party to run for president belongs to Benjamin "Ben" Fernandez. In 1978, Mr. Fernandez declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. During the 1980 primary election, he campaigned in 40 states. Mr. Fernandez was the first chairman of the National Hispanic Republican Council, which was later changed to The National Republican Hispanic Assembly. Mr. Fernandez passed away on April 25, 2000.


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