Published on TheHill.com on February 7, 2008.
The Fox News exit polling in California’s Democratic primary underscores the key role of Hispanic voters in awarding the triumph to Hillary Clinton. As Texas looms as the next major contest on March 4th, the lessons learned in California will be very important.
How odd is it that Obama tied among whites and carried blacks but lost California? The key is that she won Latinos by 2:1 and they constituted one third of the vote in the primary. In Texas, their role will be similar and their impact on the race might be the same if Obama cannot turn them around.
Why the Latino support for Hillary? Much of the Hispanic community casts votes quite traditional of immigrants. The memory of who has been good to them stretches back far and lives vividly in their minds. Bill Clinton’s unflinching support for NAFTA, jamming it through Congress despite his party’s opposition, and his prompt action in bailing out Mexico when the Tequila currency crisis of the 90s threatened their economic stability and sent unemployment soaring are all still likely very much in the minds of today’s Mexican-American voters. For Puerto Ricans, Bill Clinton’s pardon of the FALN terrorists, originally intended to win their votes for Hillary’s Senate race, are probably still important. And Dominicans probably still remember Bill’s commitment to saving Haiti by sending in American forces and stopping instability from overtaking the island the two countries share.
But negative factors are probably at play as well. Resentment among Latinos against blacks is not minor and may well have been partly responsible for their rejection of Obama. At the lower end of the economic scale, such resentments are often a powerful political motivation.
Hillary’s election night speech on Super Tuesday emphasized the Statue of Liberty as she sought to wrap herself in support for immigration and the American dream.
Obama’s strong showing in the south and Midwest augers well for his ability to win in Texas and Ohio on March 4th. But Hispanics can be his undoing in both states. What can Obama do about the Latino vote?
Hillary stumbled over the issue of granting drivers licenses to illegal immigrants and finally came down against allowing them. Obama, interestingly, supports them and can make this a wedge issue for Hispanic voters. The relationship between Latino citizens and their illegal immigrant cousins is often strained, but they are agreed that it would be unfair to force them to walk to work or to drive illegally. The shadow that is cast over them by not having a drivers license keeps them in the dark and makes it hard for them to move freely without fear of arrest and deportation. By stressing this issue, and with it Hillary’s indecisiveness and vacillation over the question during their October debate, Obama can drive the issue home and use it to score points with Latino voters.
The impact of the Latino vote in the general election will be huge now that McCain is emerging as the likely Republican candidate. The very immigration bill for which the conservatives excoriate him will serve him in very good stead in the general election. Alone among the Republicans, he can reach out to Latinos with a good chance of acceptance. The California exit polling suggests that he scored heavily with that state’s Latino vote.
Apart from the problems he is facing among Latinos, Obama demonstrated an ability to get votes in the heartland of America on Tuesday, winning in such states as Missouri, Utah, Idaho, Kansas, Colorado, North Dakota, and Minnesota. Apart from her home state victory in New York and New Jersey (and in Arkansas and neighboring Tennessee), Hillary’s main victories were in California and Arizona where Hispanic votes put her over the top.
As primaries unfold over the next two weeks in Virginia, DC, Maryland, Maine, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington State, and Hawaii, the Hispanic vote will be minimal. (75% of Hispanic voters are concentrated in New York, California, Texas, Illinois, and Florida). If Obama needs to concentrate on winning Hispanic-Americans, Hillary needs to work on her act in America’s heartland, a task much more fundamental to her nomination and election.