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).