Thursday, January 24, 2008

Obama outreach and the Latino vote
January 24, 2008
by Geb Martinez

Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez is a strong supporter of Barack Obama, his home-state senator, but there’s one aspect of Obama’s campaign that he finds maddening: Obama’s Latino outreach efforts.

“When you are washing dishes and waiting tables and are working these kinds of jobs, you don’t pick up Newsweek and find out the phenomenon about Barack Obama,” said Gutierrez, who says Latinos don’t know Obama.

Gutierrez, who represents a majority-Hispanic Chicago-based district, is frustrated that the campaign has not followed his advice to knock on the doors of Latino voters — the fastest-growing segment of the electorate — just as Hillary Rodham Clinton did recently in Las Vegas with other prominent Latinos at her side.

“She’s running a good campaign,” Gutierrez said of the New York senator. “Don’t blame Latinos and blacks with prejudice. There are a lot of other reasons” for Obama’s low Latino support, he said.

The reasons, according to those who have watched the campaigns, are clear: Hillary and Bill Clinton are better known, more popular and better at organizing than Obama is. On the same night this week that the leading Democratic presidential candidates were pounding at each other in a South Carolina debate, former President Clinton was on the telephone, recruiting the wonder kid of Nevada politics to pack a bag for California and organize Latino voters for Hillary Clinton.

The field organizer, first-term Nevada Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen, who turned out his own volunteer corps for Clinton at his state’s caucuses last Saturday, readily agreed to work the California primary on Feb. 5. “Not only was she the first lady for eight years, next to one of the most popular presidents in the Hispanic community, which is Bill Clinton, but she really made an effort here” in Nevada, Kihuen explained.

In this unprecedented presidential campaign — in which a woman, an African-American and a white Southerner are competing for the Democratic nomination — episodes like that help explain why Clinton enjoys a wide margin of support among Latino voters over Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Gutierrez agreed that Clinton’s popularity with Hispanics is hard for Obama to overcome, just as it was for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Hispanic who ended his presidential campaign this month. Clinton also had a huge lead among black voters before they learned more about Obama and viewed him as a viable national candidate.

While political pundits accent a black-vs.-brown rivalry, suggesting that Latinos are reluctant to vote for Obama because he is African-American, the fundamental dynamic in this particular case appears to be that the Clintons are better known and organized in the Hispanic community.

The president nurtured relations with Hispanics — as he did with blacks — during good economic times, and Hillary Clinton promoted children’s health care before being elected senator from New York.

Long before that, in 1968, she helped organize Hispanic voters in San Antonio. Together the couple is recognized as one of the best political teams in decades, even if the president has been getting pushback from party stalwarts for his aggressive jabs at Obama.

“I would expect she’s going to do better with Hispanics than Obama [has], principally because she is better known,” said David A. Bositis, who studies minority voters for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

The real test for Obama, as the campaign heads into Latino-vote-rich states on Super Tuesday on Feb. 5 will be “in terms of how much of the vote he peels away,” especially where the contests are tight, Bositis added. “One of the things he’s going to have to do is become better known” in Latino communities.

On Wednesday, Gutierrez and former Denver Mayor Federico Pena, who served in President Clinton’s Cabinet but backs Obama, mulled over how to get their candidate into Hispanic neighborhoods and to better coordinate with his surrogates there.

The ethnic gap jumped out at pollsters who surveyed Nevada caucus-goers. Clinton won the backing of white voters by 18 points and Hispanics by a more than 2-1 ratio over Obama, while Obama won 83 percent of the African-American voters.

Clinton also was preferred by 55 percent of Hispanic Democratic voters, compared with 6 percent for Obama and less than 5 percent for Edwards and Richardson in a recent survey of Latino voters in the top five Hispanic states — California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois. The poll was released on the eve of the primary season by Avanze-ImpreMedia.

The notion of an undercurrent of political tension between African-Americans and Hispanics flows from the fact that blacks led the civil rights struggles that also benefit the faster-growing Latino population.

Opponents of expanded immigration rights also have openly played to the rift by arguing that Latino immigrants are driving down wages or taking jobs that blacks could hold. While black voters express those concerns in polls, the immigration issue is not a deciding factor in their votes. Nor do those issues have anything to do with whether Latinos will vote for African-American candidates, according to political analysts.

“I am sick of this idea that Latinos won’t vote for blacks,” said Matt A. Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington. Latino backing “is very candidate- and contact-dependent.” He pointed to the four African-American mayors of New York, Chicago, Denver and Dallas, who won their elections during the 1980s and 1990s with large support from Latino voters. Obama’s election to the Senate in 2004 also was highlighted by strong support from Hispanics.

Obama, who was criticized early on for not being “black enough” — even among his black supporters, there is a gap between higher-educated, better-paid voters and those at the lower ends of economic and social classes — has preached the need to remove stereotypes against gays, Jews and immigrants.

“For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity,” Obama told congregants at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta last Sunday. “We can no longer build ourselves up by tearing someone else down.”

Obama’s low numbers among Latino voters are not based on bias, said California Rep. Hilda L. Solis, a Clinton supporter.

Before taking sides, Solis asked to hear each candidate’s plan for Hispanic voter outreach. Obama’s “appeal is very strong because he’s a very charismatic speaker,” Solis said, but his campaign’s pitch “was not as impressive as I thought it could be.”

In Nevada, Kihuen told the candidates he would endorse whomever his constituents preferred. “Obama came twice and Clinton, three times. I surveyed 350 families in my district, and 63 percent supported Clinton. I personally just feel that she is the most prepared to become president,” Kihuen said.

Obama has not given up. In California, he recently won the backing of Rep. Linda T. Sanchez of California and Maria Elena Durazo, the immigrants rights activist and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor chief.

But Clinton’s list of Latino endorsements is longer. She just picked up the backing of the 27,000-member United Farm Workers and of Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joe Baca (D-Calif.).

The race will surely tighten before Feb. 5, warned Steven A. Ochoa, who studies Latino voting behavior at the William C. Velasquez Institute. “Latinos are still looking at the candidates and deciding, and they are very much up for grabs.”

Gebe Martinez is a Politico contributing correspondent.

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