Monday, June 02, 2008

Obama’s Latino Dilemma
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

A day before the Puerto Rican primary election, I talked with several Mexican workers and business professionals during a visit to Mexico City. The subject was American presidential politics and the upcoming election. They had only the haziest notion that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was the frontrunner for the Democratic Party nomination. They knew virtually nothing about his positions on the major issues, especially the hot button issue of immigration reform. They all readily recognized Clinton’s name and thought that if elected she’d do a better job on the immigration question.
Their haziness in knowing that Obama was the odds on favorite to bag the Democratic presidential nomination and even their wariness toward him was not a surprise. Three of the top newspapers on the newsstands in Mexico City, Excelsior, El Universal, and Reforma made only bare mention of the Puerto Rican primary, and only passing mention of the aftermath.
The combination of the familiarity with and like of Clinton by the majority of Latino voters and their still blurred notion of what Obama stands for remains a tormenting dilemma for him and the Democrats. Polls show that he will do well against Republican rival John McCain, but that’s mostly because a majority of Latino voters in Texas, California, New Jersey, and New York are Democrats. These are the states in which Latino voters helped propel Clinton to a decisive win over Obama. In the contest against McCain, Obama’s numbers pale in comparison to what Clinton would do against him.

But even before Clinton’s crushing win over Obama in Puerto Rico there were warning signs that Obama’s Latino dilemma wouldn’t go away. In Nevada in January, Obama got the endorsement of the leaders of the heavily Hispanic Culinary Workers Union. But getting the vote of the rank and file union workers was a far different matter, as the subsequent vote showed. Latino voters, many of them almost certainly members of the culinary union, defied their leaders and their votes made a big difference in Clinton’s victory in the state.
Obama spent months on the campaign trail, gotten non-stop media exposure, the nod of big name Democrats, done a victory romp through a dozen states, and piled up a seeming commanding number of delegates. Yet, exit polls still showed that his numbers didn’t budge much with Latino voters. The later endorsement of one time Democratic presidential contender Bill Richardson and a legion of leading Hispanic union leaders, elected officials, as well as top Latino entertainers still didn’t push Obama’s vote totals up.
A May poll in California showed that Obama would beat John McCain handily. Yet forty percent of Latino voters still said they preferred McCain. This was not a small campaign footnote. Latino voters make up about one quarter of California voters. Their swelling numbers is almost certainly a major reason why McCain announced that he will not write California off even though a GOP presidential contender hasn’t won the state since George Bush Sr. in 1988. The poll was no fluke.
In fact, Obama has marched in the exact opposite direction since the Super Tuesday primaries. Exit polls in state primaries between February and May show that Clinton has appreciably widened her lead among Latino voters over him by nearly six percent.
This poses an even bigger problem for Obama and the Democrats. Political tradition, logic, and numbers dictate that a candidate marching confidently to their party’s nomination should and must have momentum going into the general election battle. The surest way to measure that momentum is by counting the numbers and by gauging the voter demographics. Put simply, the presumed party nominee must increase the gap over their vanquished party rivals for the nomination among the key voter groups they need behind them to win the White House. For the Democrats, those voters are blue collar whites, rural voters, middle class, college educated professionals, middle aged and middle income white women, Jews, and African-Americans.
Increasingly, the most crucial group of all is Latino voters. They now make up one in five Democratic voters, and could put the GOP strongholds, Texas, Nevada, Colorado and swing state Florida, in play for the Democrats. But that’s only if the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee stokes the enthusiasm, passion and allegiance of Latino voters. The standard explanation for Obama’s failure to light the match under them in the early campaign days was that Hispanic voters didn’t know who he was. That explanation won’t fly now.
Obama’s heightened name identification, media boost, energizing change pitch and personal charisma has done absolutely nothing to dispel the mix of wariness, indifference, and outright opposition to him that I heard from Mexican workers and professional in Mexico City. That and the rejection of Obama across all groups of Puerto Rican voters in and outside Puerto Rico, once more points to Obama’s Latino dilemma. That spells big trouble for the Democrats.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).


Eric L. Wattree said...


Much of what you say is true--it is essential for Obama to start building a bridge between himself and those demographics that he's weak in. If you and I understand that, why doesn't Hillary?

The fact is, she does, but she doesn't care--which means that she also doesn't care about the Democratic Party, her supporters, or the American people as a whole.

Buch has placed this country in such a precarious position that our democracy may not be able to survive another Republican administration. So why is Hillary placing her own selfish needs before the welfare of the country?

That's the primary reason why I simply can't understand how someone as astute as yourself can support such a person. Why would you support a person who clearly doesn't care about the country, or even her own supporters--yourself among them?

For me, this election season will always remain one of life's great curiosities.


Anonymous said...

Earl, first of all I disagree with your thesis almost in its entirety. The (non-scientific) opinions of "Mexican workers and business professionals ... [in] MEXICO CITY, MEXICO" is hardly a predictor for a vote in the U.S., unless America has changed its laws and allowed non-citizens to vote.

Secondly, all of the polls that you are citing come from a race of three persons (Obama, McCain and Clinton) and more specifically a race between the Democratic party of two persons (Obama and Clinton), one of whom (Clinton) has enormous name recognition given her husband's former presidency. Obviously, now that Clinton is out of the race, it's a different game.

Someone like Hillary Clinton is always going to have name recognition over a relative newcomer to the national stage. Your article contradicts itself and proves that very point in your admission that many of these "Mexican workers" in Mexico City, Mexico neither recognized Obama's name nor knew that he was the FRONTRUNNER and now presumptive nominee.

So save us your ill-thought and premature prediction of a problem that does not exist. The race in November will be between two people, Obama and McCain. We all know that you are a Clinton surrogate and are creating controversy to attempt to further weaken the people's candidate so that your girl can make a run in 2012. Thanks, but no thanks.

And a final question for you Earl: have you polled Americans, even on a casual basis to find out if Americans even knew who the President of Mexico is? I'd bet that most Americans would not know who this person is. So tell me again why the opinions of Mexican people living in MEXICO have anything to do with a political race in AMERICA?

sandmadd said...

I've heard all kinds of excuses as to why latinos won't vote for Obama. But, only once have I heard the "R" word (racism): a latina on Bill Moyers' program said that latinos see blacks at the bottom in the U.S.- a skewered perception if the latina is correct. The U.S., as opposed to latino societies, has tried to overcome its anti-black history by striving for black representation in leadership positions. Where are the identifiable blacks in leadership positions in latino nations? There are few, if any blacks at the top; they are stuck at the bottom. That may inform the attitudes of latinos who are about to vote for or against a black man as president of the U.S.

Anonymous said...

Indeed very little or none Black/Mulatto representation in Latin American politics. The exception is, once again, Venezuela, where our first democratically elected president was Romulo Gallegos, a mulatto who also was our first world-known writer of fiction.

Most of the Latino voters that will vote for Cain, will do so for mere practical purposes rather than for ideological reasons or for loyalty to any party; among their reasons for the Cain vote the following:
-their family is in the military, getting good benefits and feeling patriotic
-their relatives are illegal immigrants (Cain might legalize em)
-they fled "communism" in Central America or Venezuela etc
-they think blacks are the least capable of all races to have an efficient government, even worse than Latinos (a belief contradicted by the historical experience in Barbados and some other places Latinos have barely heard about)

However, the TORTILLA QUESTION remains the most important factor in deciding the Latino vote: will the current downward economic trend continue under Cain? And, if so, how the chingada will we Latinos be able to get our tortillas? Not to mention tuition fees, books, giant digital TVs to watch 'em dodgers and lakers, SUV bills, and monthly payments on a refinanced mortgage at thrice the original interest rate?

Obama's attention to Latinos should employ a non-ideological approach, cordial but not overly friendly (Indian-rooted fear of friendlyness), with precious few pronouncements (on war, the Pentagon or capitalism). Instead, he should base his strategy around Black/Latino individuals who are very personable and who already have long-standing contacts in their communities.
Notwithstanding the experienced Bill Richardson (whose state of New Mexico has very few blacks), Obama should focus on leaders at the small scale LOCAL level, with less pretension and more backbone.

For example he could name L.A. (afroamerican) councilwoman Jan Perry for an important liaison position, as she is a pioneer in bridging Black and/vs Brown issues. Another afroamerican person to keep in mind would be Dr. Gerda Govine, a Pasadena based woman linked to the black owned newspaper The San Gabriel Valley and Pasadena Journal. They are veterans of this issue, more than Ofari or sheriff Bacca, with some successes to count for. Both Perry and Govine have Latino relatives and speak Spanish (Perry even sings boleros ...and well!)

Let us not forget the gracious black sports figures who, donning Mexican charro hats, do not waste an opportunity to celebrate the Latinos, a generous warm-hearted gesture that Latinos do recognize.

Maria Mayer

Anonymous said...

Here we go, the usual race baters, who seem to want to demagogue Latinos. They say blacks have little representation in power in Latin American countries. And what about the mestizos, who form the Majority of illegal immigrants who escape poverty there?? Conveniently ignored by these race baters, who seem to want to see a case of black and Latino tension. The fact is that darker skinned people in general fair worse in Latin America, not just blacks. So stop it. Stop whining. And STOP scapegoating Hispanics for everything from BAD ECONOMY, CRIMES TO RACISM! IT'S ENOUGH. It's enough. Mestizos are at least as much victimized by racism as those who whine about Them being a bunch of racists. Some of who include WHITE people who don't know what racism in America or Latin America means. They just want to pit blacks against Hispanics, alongside themselves. It's the devil at work.