Thursday, February 21, 2008

Obama, Texas and the Latino Vote



Battle for Texas Latino vote challenges conventional wisdom

Some analysts say Clinton is the front-runner, but a new report shows Obama has erased her advantage among Latinos.

By Juan Castillo
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Political strategists trying to size up the race between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are talking a lot about former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk these days.

When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2002, Kirk — an African American originally from East Austin — was virtually unknown in predominantly Mexican American South Texas. So, he blitzed the region, appearing there 15 times during his campaign.

It was a reliable strategy thatpaid off in one of the poorest regions in the nation but historically one of the richest sources of Democratic votes in Texas.

"It was a love affair, if you will," Kirk recalled. "They fell in love with me, and I did fall in love with them."

In fact, Kirk beat a Hispanic candidate in the primary with strong support among Latinos statewide.

Though he ultimately lost to Republican John Cornyn, Kirk's success with Hispanics undermines the oft-quoted idea that antipathy between blacks and Latinos will hinder Obama's own pursuit of Hispanic votes.

That and other traditional theories about political strategy are under scrutiny as Obama and Clinton aggressively court Latino voters in Texas. With both locked in a razor-close battle for the Democratic nomination for president, and with Clinton badly needing to reverse Obama's momentum, the Latino vote could be pivotal in the March 4 primary.

Hispanics represent about 20 percent — 2.6 million — of Texas' registered voters, and after flirting with the Republican Party during the Bush years, they are back in the Democrats' fold, according to a Pew Hispanic Center national survey in December.

Analysts say Hispanics make up about 35 percent to 40 percent of Democratic primary voters but might account for considerably more on March 4 if Texas mirrors the record turnouts in other states.

Those numbers, combined with the sheer star power of two popular candidates, are creating a buzz that has some feeling almost giddy about the importance of Latino voters this year.

"We're at the driver's seat," said Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in San Antonio, which seeks to build Latino voter participation. "There's a sense that this is a big moment for Hispanics politically."

Bread-and-butter issues

Though Clinton is widely considered the front-runner in Texas, a national poll released Tuesday showed her and Obama in a near tie here. Another nationwide survey showed Obama has erased Clinton's 2-1 advantage among Hispanics.

As they compete for Texas' 228 Democratic delegates, both Obama and Clinton count endorsements from prominent, local, state and national Latino leaders.

Camarillo said both have staked similar positions on key issues such as education, jobs, the economy and "bringing the troops home."

Such "bread-and-butter issues" are paramount in South Texas, said Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Pan American in Edinburg.

Last Friday, the Clinton campaign flashed South Texas credentials, releasing a list of more than 100 Hispanic elected officials there who endorsed her. Clinton made campaign stops last week in traditional Hispanic voter strongholds — San Antonio, El Paso and the Valley — reminding audiences that her first job in politics was registering Hispanic voters in South Texas in 1972.

She was scheduled to speak at a rally in Hidalgo tonight, her second in the Valley in eight days.

"The Clintons are well-known, and they're well-connected" in the Valley, said Polinard, citing voters' belief that Bill Clinton's presidency brought economic growth to the region. "It's hard to see (Obama) cutting dramatically into her hold down here."

Luis Fraga, a political scientist at the University of Washington who has tracked Latino votes in presidential elections since 1980, said Clinton also benefits from a South Texas tradition in which the candidate with the best name recognition and ties to party leadership locks in support early from local elected party leaders, who are then expected to deliver votes.

Josh Earnest, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, acknowledged that Obama is the underdog in the Valley and in Texas but said there is still time to introduce him to voters in Hispanic communities.

Federico Peña, a Texan who served in President Clinton's Cabinet and now is a national co-chairman for the Obama campaign, predicted Latinos will line up behind Obama once they get to know him.

In upcoming appearances in Texas, Peña said, Obama will seek to highlight his own immigrant experience, the struggles of his single mother, his support for legislation giving undocumented immigrant students opportunities to attend college and his work before entering politics with unemployed Latino and African American steel mill workers in Chicago.

Last week, Obama released Spanish-language radio ads in eight markets and a Spanish TV ad running in Houston, San Antonio, Harlingen, McAllen, Corpus Christi and Laredo.

The TV ad touts Obama's plans to bring about universal health care and to provide tax relief for working families, "issues that matter to Hispanics in Texas and across America," said state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, an Obama supporter.

The Clinton campaign also aired a Spanish-language TV ad highlighting her understanding of the problems Latinos face.

Obama made stops in San Antonio and Houston on Tuesday and planned a visit to the Dallas-Fort Worth area today, before Thursday's nationally televised debate with Clinton in Austin. He was reportedly set to visit McAllen on Friday.

Kirk, an Obama supporter, said his 2002 Senate campaign showed that a relatively unknown African American candidate can build rapport with Latinos.

"But understand, I had 18 months. We've got three weeks," Kirk said.

An Obama upset?

Some political analysts question another conventional argument: that Clinton's name recognition, organizational strength and presumed advantage in South Texas will translate to victory in the primary.

Because the state's Hispanic population is far-flung and increasingly urban, analysts saythe Rio Grande Valley and South Texas are no longer the electoral prizes they once were. Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio are now home to far more Hispanic voters than South Texas and in a tight race, every region will count, some analysts say.

One Democratic insider, a former Clinton administration appointee who is privy to the Obama campaign, said Clinton's emphasis on visiting the Valley, El Paso and San Antonio was a mistake because she stands to win those regions anyway.

"It was a waste of time and a waste of money," said the strategist, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak for either campaign.

If recent results in other states are a barometer, Clinton will win among Latinos in Texas. (Exit polls in 16 states on Super Tuesday earlier this month showed Hispanic voters favoring Clinton by about 63 percent to 35 percent.)

Obama's campaign asserted, however, that it is making inroads with Hispanics, pointing to wins among Latinos in Iowa, Virginia, Connecticut and in his home state, Illinois.

Such talk might be seen as little more than campaign spin were it not for the gains Obama has been making across the board.

"With Obama, there's much more potential," said Fraga, the Latino voting expert. "He's polling better among every demographic, including white males and white women."

Still, to win in Texas, Obama needs to achieve what would have seemed unthinkable early in his campaign.

Fraga said Obama must replicate his previous success with white and young voters while claiming a clear majority of the white female vote — a Clinton strength. Finally, Obama must increase his current share of the Latino vote considerably, to 40 or 45 percent, as well as garner massive black voter turnout and support.

Primary results in other states and Gallup poll findings released Tuesday show Obama further building his dominance among black Democrats. Analysts expect the trend to continue in Texas, with Obama winning perhaps 80 percent of votes from African Americans.

In fact, despite all the focus on the Latino vote, it is the black vote that may do as much or more to shape the outcome March 4.

Texas awards 55 percent of its delegates by Senate districts. The number of so-called pledged delegates a district gets depends on Democratic turnout there in 2004 and 2006.

That means that heavily African American districts in Houston and Dallas, which had good voter turnouts — and where Obama is likely to have overwhelming support — will get more delegates than heavily Hispanic districts that had poor turnouts.

Fraga said he agreed with assessments that Clinton is the front-runner withTexas Latinos.

"The question is how many more inroads can (Obama) make between now and the fourth."; 445-3635

What they're saying about

A Hispanic/African American divide: "That's kind of like old-school Latino mentality, like when Latinos or Mexican Americans of my parents' generation couldn't even marry a black (because) it would be taboo. I don't think that exists in my generation." — Mary González, a 24-year-old graduate student at St. Edward's University, on the idea that a divide between Latinos and African Americans hampers Sen. Obama's bid for Latino votes. González said she was undecided but leaning toward Sen. Clinton.

Clinton: "I think it is important that we have somebody who has experience, who has also been a model for women, and being a Mexican American woman and an ordained clergywoman, I want to also support models that break out of the pattern of male domination in terms of politics, government and institutions." — Lydia Hernández, 67, former executive director of the Manos de Cristo mission in Austin.

Obama: "Senator Obama is a once-in-a lifetime candidate. I really think people feel that about him, and I think he is as well." — Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez

Obama: "Obama is a candidate who's attracting the respect of people of all races, ethnicities, religions and color. It's a message of hope and inspiration, and I think it'll resonate with people all over Texas." — Ron Kirk, former mayor of Dallas

Clinton: "I think I would be remiss if I was going to go against the guy I supported for president." — Former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia, 74, a delegate for President Clinton in 1992. Garcia decided to support Sen. Clinton after former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew from the race.

Clinton: "It's an opportunity for us to have someone who is extremely qualified and be a player with any man that comes in the room. ... It's been a tough road for women in politics." — Sylvia Camarillo-Brittain, former aide to ex-Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos who has been involved in politics for 25 years.

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