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!