When politics gets personal for Latinos

In reality, politics are without question a very personal matter but, partly due to the media’s focus on the horserace aspect of elections and partly due to the candidates often allowing themselves to be defined by labels (or at the least, trying to marginalize their opponents with them), most political debate occurs from a safe, impersonal distance. It’s what I think made John Edwards such an intriguing but ultimately flawed candidate this time around as he was undeniably the most passionate of the bunch but was significantly hampered by the combination of his problematic track record as a Senator and the inherent discordance of a filthy rich trial lawyer attempting to present himself as a champion of the downtrodden, no matter how sincere he seemed to be about his chosen cause.

As Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to battle it out for the Democratic nomination that was not-too-long ago assumed to be going to be handed to her on February 5th, the admittedly minimal daylight between them on the actual issues are (hopefully) going to get a bit more scrutiny from voters and the media alike, and it’s going to be the most personal issues that will sway voters one way or the other.

Two issues of particular interest to Latinos are immigration reform and U.S. relations with Cuba and Latin America, the latter of which is greatly affected by a combination of the first two. Like Health Care, there’s not a huge disparity between them on the surface, but there are distinct differences in both their approach and tone that stand out for me.

On immigration, I can’t help but come back to the last debate, where they faced off head-to-head for the first time, and when asked whether or not African-Americans were justified in blaming immigrants for high unemployment, Obama took the high road, saying it’s wrong to scapegoat immigrants while Clinton, shockingly, implied it was okay to blame them. More shocking, to me, was that I didn’t see any significant mention of that moment in any of the coverage of the debate that I read, and that Clinton subsequently took the Latino vote in California 2-to-1 over Obama.

On Cuba, Roger Payne offers a revealing analysis of their positions, noting that because of Florida’s primary being sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee and their votes being invalidated (for the time being), the issue was pretty much buried. In the middle of it, he cites a very interesting quote from a Washington Post article from January 1, 2007 that sheds some light on another interesting quote that, one year later, would kick off a controversy that could ultimately determine who the Democratic nominee is, preventing any “backroom deals” via a brokered convention:

Clinton “is going with the status quo,” said Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based pollster who specializes in Hispanic voters. Obama, he said, “is with the position of change.”

Bendixen, of course, is the Clinton pollster who, one year later, made the perfectly timed and now infamous statement that the media ran with:

“The Hispanic voter—and I want to say this very carefully—has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

That statement was shot down two weeks later by Time‘s Gregory Rodriguez

Nationwide, no fewer than eight black House members–including New York’s Charles Rangel and Texas’ Al Green–represent districts that are more than 25% Latino and must therefore depend heavily on Latino votes. And there are other examples. University of Washington political scientist Matt Barreto has begun compiling a list of black big-city mayors who have received large-scale Latino support over the past several decades. In 1983, Harold Washington pulled 80% of the Latino vote in Chicago. David Dinkins won 73% in New York City’s mayoral race in 1989. And Denver’s Wellington Webb garnered more than 70% in 1991, as did Ron Kirk in Dallas in 1995 and again in 1997 and ’99. If he had gone back further, Barreto could have added longtime Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, who won a majority of Latino votes in all four of his re-election campaigns between 1977 and 1989.

— but the damage was already done as the “Obama’s Latino Problem” meme had already taken hold and the media ran with it.

One week later, Clinton eked out a victory in Nevada largely on the strength of a 3-to-1 split of the Latino vote. Three weeks later, on Super Tuesday, Latinos helped Clinton carry California (and, sadly but predictably, New York) but Obama had strong Latino support in Illinois, Connecticut, Arizona and New Mexico, the first two of which he won outright and the latter has yet to be called.

Latino Politics Blog offers this encouraging analysis:

He’s especially gaining momentum with younger Latinos, which I tend to see in my own sphere of influence. I think that younger Latinos can more easily relate to Barack Obama than we can Hillary Clinton. He is closer in age to most Latinos, has an immigrant father, and has two young children, aside from great oratory skills that appeal more to younger voters. It seems that Hillary Clinton has tried to make herself appealing to younger Latinos by sending America Ferrara (aka Ugly Betty) and Chelsea Clinton out to various youth events in the Southwest. Yeah, these two rich girls really resonate with us. How many 20-something Latinos do you know work for hedge funds in Manhattan or star in their own sitcoms?

It’s quite possible that on March 4th, Texas and Ohio — both of which are Clinton’s latest “firewalls” — could significantly tilt the primary in one direction or the other and Texas is the next time that Latinos will represent a decisive percentage of the vote. Right now, Clinton is polling well ahead of Obama in both states, just as she was in most of the Super Tuesday states in early January.

Assuming Obama performs as well as expected in the nine primaries and caucuses coming up over the next couple of weeks, it will be interesting to see what he does to specifically address Latino issues in an effort to tilt Texas in his favor. It’s arguably a long shot, but just three months ago, so was the idea that he’d be running neck-and-neck with Clinton on February 6th.

ETA: MSNBC takes a look at the issue, “For Clinton, Latino vote could swing the deal — But Obama is pushing hard: ‘As Latinos get to know me, we do better’

ETA2: For fans of “What if…” scenarios, Latino Pundit considers what could happen if the nomination isn’t wrapped up before Puerto Rico’s winner-take-all primary on June 7th. In this already historic primary, it would definitely serve for an incredibly dramatic climax!

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8 thoughts on “When politics gets personal for Latinos

  1. I was talking to my boss about this the other day. He seemed shocked that Latinos voted for Hillary so much and he asked me what I thought. I personally though it was racism, pure and simple. I personally am not a bigot, but my WHOLLLLLLEE family is full of them! My mom ‘doesnt have a problem with black people’ but did when I started dating one. So running our country? Yeah… I think not. There’s sort of this unspoken thing that I’ve noticed. Many Latinos believe they are ‘better’ and higher on the food chain than blacks, (and sorry Salome!) but Cubans are the WORST of the bunch. A lot of them feel they are better than the other Latinos.

    It’s really sad and unfortunate, but I think that pollster was right when he made that comment, and all the backtracking afterwards doesnt make a difference. The proof is in the [vanilla] pudding.

  2. Who decided she would be crowned on Super Tuesday. The media?* I think one really has to look at the media and the role it is playing here, As well as the roll of pollsters. Certain corners of the media have been saying for 5 years ( even b4 kerry) that she would get the nomination. While many of us voters thought–no way.

    Also have to question the media as far as the Latino vote–what do pollsters really know? How are they really getting their info?

    And isn’t this a winner for the Republicans ( who have been the one pushing who nomination for 5 years ands till think she will get it) If she does win the nomination? The “fact” that Latinos vote for her in huge numbers will be used against her. Be thankful that they say Barack Obama isn’t getting the latino vote. “How are all those illegals voting for Hilliary ?”

    And whats scariest about this, is that once Obama does get the nomination, everything will be turned and twisted on him, will he be ready? Can he fight it and still stay true to his message. Just listen to how the 24/7 cable people and talk show hosts tlak about people who vote for Obama, and think of the unattractive ways that this can be worded ones he gets the nomination.

    * By media I include 24/7 Cable news hosts and pundits, talk radio, and big name alternative news sites and blogs.

  3. @Dyanna: Anecdotally, I agree with you — esp. re: Cuban Superiority Complex! — but I think there’s definitely a generational split there which seems to exist across the board, conciously and sub-conciously, and it’s not just with Latinos. Rodriguez’ hard data and the results of Super Tuesday outside of California, though, suggest Bendixen was talking out of his ass, playing up a stereotype to plant a seed for his employer.

    @Kashe: While the media certainly forces their own narratives on things every step of the way, I think it’s rather difficult to blame them for Clinton being considered the front-runner coming into the campaign. She had the name recognition, abundant goodwill left over from Bill’s two terms as President, a formidable fund-raising machine and a revised primary schedule that absolutely favored the candidate with the most money. Biden, Dodd and Richardson all offered much more relevant experience than she had but none of them had the financial backing to compete with her. What turned it into a legitimate race was the combination of her vote for the Iraq war (exacerbated by her continued refusal to admit it was a mistake) and the completely unpredictable rise of Obama as a viable alternative.

  4. I think, when looking at the Latino vote — from a statistical point of view — it’s imperative to break it down into nationalities, because otherwise you end up with an unreadable mess. The numbers just don’t work well when you lump Puerto Ricans in with Mexicans and Cubans. The groups have different experiences in America, and different sets of issues.

    That being said, while it surprised me at first that the Mexican-American vote was breaking hard for Clinton, it probably shouldn’t have. Strip the voting Mexican-American demographic down to its essentials, and you’ve basically got a sizable blue collar labor demographic, and a growing and increasingly affluent middle class with a lot to lose from the Bush recession. In other words, your classic, straight-ahead Democrats. Oh, and Catholics, also a traditional Democrat base, although Bush eroded that some. (And the a lot of Catholics seem to regret that decision …)

    I think, if they had broken for Obama, there’d be a lot of people talking about Mexican machismo and how they’d never vote for a woman, when the answer’s much simpler: traditional Democrats broke for the most traditional Democratic candidate.

  5. The folks that are voting for Hilary seem to forget that this was the same political figure who was against her husband giving a pardon to the Puerto Rican Political Prisoners. Folks who had longer sentences then folks who committed murder. Now she’s the leader of the Latino community. LOL! People are crazy…

    Hillary is the “establishment” at the DNC and this is why Obama poses a problem to the powers that be who run that camp. If people sadly believe that Hillary is about new change, they haven’t spent enough time in Washington politics to see the behind the scenes deals that are made. Deals which have nothing to do with empowering Latinos, never mind the Black community.

    There is no monolithic Latino vote, just a media that portrays this so called “Latino” identity as the new Irish-American, Italian-American, Latino American voter block. In telemundo and univision, everyone is blond, blue eye, and has light skin with long hair. LOL!

    Keep in mind that this Latino label doesn’t take into consideration Race. Obama is a problem for both the RNC and the DNC. Folks can argue it any way they want but Obama is a black candidate who if elected, sends a clear message that things are going to change in the way the DNC does politics. Howard Dean did this using the internet and disenfranchised voters, now he runs the DNC.

    If Hillary gets the nomination, not just Latinos, but everyone will get a glimpse of a candidate who says one thing and does another. Did anyone remember that the first thing Bill Clinton did before taking office as president was to execute a mentally handicapped man in Arkansas. Hillary was right there supporting her husband on that decision. You have to look at the past to understand who you are voting to lead you in the future.

  6. @Victor: “…traditional Democrats broke for the most traditional Democratic candidate.” Yeah; that’s pretty much how I read the results. California was simply too big a state for Obama to fully close the gap that existed there in such a short time period, but he narrowed it considerably and I think there’s no question he or Clinton take the state in the general election vs. McCain so her “big state” argument is pretty weak.

    @Peabody: It’s funny [sad] how the Clintons have been trying to spin Obama as the “establishment” candidate because of some of the high-profile endorsements he’s won recently. Worse, though, is when the media buys into and starts to cast her as the underdog. Even worse than that is when otherwise intelligent people I know start parroting that nonsense. The Clintons have always played politics from a cynical perspective and this year it finally backfired on them.

  7. Late to it, but:

    There is NO WAY either candidate is going to allow Puerto Rico to decide the nomination. Nothing is more de-legitimizing than being put over the top delegate-wise by a non-state, no matter what semantics they place upon the voting public. Puerto Rico gets no love as a state, a free associated state, or a colony. I guarantee you it would get ugly if it came down to it.

    Anyway. It’s true, the Latino vote is not monolithic in the least, and I think that’s been discussed plenty. But this recent event in Cuba should give us pause. Florida politics are going to get even more interesting, as if they weren’t already. I think the next President will likely be dealing with a massive (and possibly violent) political transition in Cuba…and a fairly large refugee crisis afterward. Furthermore, if things change rapidly over there (i.e. if Castro or his brother die or end up assassinated), we will QUICKLY need to know the candidates’ positions on normalizing relations, military intervention on the island, economic aid and investment, etc. Bottom line…Cuba is a WAY bigger issue than folks are even willing to acknowledge now.

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