Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Democrats are realizing that winning the Hispanic vote is more critical than ever if they hope to carry Nevada in November.
And so as Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin rallied supporters in Carson City on Saturday, Democrats were redoubling their outreach efforts to Latinos. To point: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson gathered with local Hispanic leaders for a discussion on the economy at the College of Southern Nevada before setting off to canvass, attend a Telemundo soccer tournament and deliver remarks at the Clark County Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner.
The visit was one in a series of recent actions by the campaign underscoring the importance of the Hispanic vote here and throughout the Intermountain West.
“John Kerry lost Ohio,” Richardson said in an interview. “If he had won Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, he would be president today. I think the key to the election are these three Western states — and the margin of victory is in the Hispanic vote.”
(Richardson said he would be spending much of his time campaigning on behalf of Obama in those three battleground states, as well as Florida.)
Last month the campaign opened an office in North Las Vegas focused on Hispanic outreach. (A third of the campaign’s field organizers speak Spanish.) It then unveiled an advisory committee of influential Hispanic leaders, including some, such as Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen, who had endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton in the state’s presidential caucus.
On Saturday, Richardson fired up about 75 volunteers at the campaign’s North Las Vegas office before they fanned out across five, Latino-heavy Assembly districts. “Canvassing is the most important thing we can do to win,” he told the crowd. “You can have a lot of negative ads, but what’s most important is people-to-people, door-to-door, getting out in the neighborhoods with the people.”
Nationally, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee plan to spend $20 million on a grass-roots organizing and advertising effort aimed at Latinos. That’s more than double the amount the Bush and Kerry campaigns spent together on Hispanic outreach in 2004.
“We’re not taking anybody for granted,” said Jennifer Lopez, Obama’s deputy political director here. “We are talking to people in their language about the issues they care about. At the end of the day, that will make the difference.”
The campaign is investing heavily in swing states with large Hispanic populations, hoping they will tip the balance on Election Day. Nevada is 24 percent Hispanic, and the campaign is intensely focused on registering those voters.
Voter registration figures in Clark County suggest excitement. Hispanic registration was essentially static between the 2004 and 2006 elections, with about 57 percent of Latinos favoring the Democratic Party. Since 2006, though, Hispanics have increased their ranks in the county by 18,500. Three quarters of those voters registered Democratic.
Obama, speaking to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last week, said turning those voters out in November will be critical.
“If you have any doubt about whether you can make a difference, just remember how, back in 2004, 40,000 registered Latino voters in New Mexico didn’t turn out on Election Day. Sen. Kerry lost that state by fewer than 6,000 votes,” he said. “Six thousand votes.”
To be sure, the McCain campaign is also targeting Hispanics.
It has sought to capitalize on the Arizona senator’s role as a leader on immigration overhaul. The campaign began airing a Spanish-language attack ad here Friday, criticizing Obama for backing “poison pill” amendments that it says caused McCain-sponsored reform legislation, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, to fail.
The campaign also released a video set to air during the Alma Awards, which honor the achievements of Latinos in the entertainment industry. In the ad, McCain calls immigrants “symbols of hope” and promises “practical and fair” immigration legislation.
But there is evidence that the bitter argument over immigration overhaul has in part changed the electoral landscape for both parties. In 2004, President Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, both in Nevada and nationally, a Republican record. Two years later, with the immigration debate at a fever pitch, Republican congressional candidates received just 30 percent of the Latino vote.
Today Democrats hold a
39-point party identification edge, nearly double what it was two years ago, according to a recent national survey by the Pew Hispanic Center. The movement, the poll found, is driven in part by overall dissatisfaction with the state of the country and by a growing view that Democrats are better attuned to the concerns of the Latino community. More than half of registered Hispanics say Democrats are more concerned about them, compared with just 6 percent who say that about Republicans.
The poll also found Hispanics overwhelmingly favor Obama (66 percent to 23 percent) and, by a 3-1 margin, think he’s better suited to deal with their most important issues: education, jobs, the cost of living, health care and immigration.
Republican presidential candidates struck an anti-immigrant tone during the primary season, seeking to rally the party’s base — white, male, conservative. As a result, many Latinos turned away from the party, said Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Vote Project at Johns Hopkins University.
Former Bush strategist Karl Rove has said McCain needs to replicate Bush’s performance with Hispanics or face the prospect of losing. Given the political landscape, few analysts expect a repeat showing.
“What it really comes down to is how well John McCain is going to be able to do among Hispanic voters in four or five of the key battleground states, including Nevada,” Segal said. “It really would be essential for McCain to exceed expectations among Hispanic voters in those states, simply because one or two percentage points could make the difference.”
The battle is heating up.
Obama seized on a sore spot with Hispanic activists last week: the Republican Party platform takes a hard line on immigration and rejects “en masse legalizations.” Although McCain co-sponsored a failed immigration overhaul bill two years ago, he has since adjusted his position, putting border security ahead of other changes.
“You’ve got to ask yourself: If Sen. McCain won’t stand up to opponents of reform at his own convention, how can you trust him to stand up for change in Washington?” Obama said to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Hispanics here are engaged and Nevada Democrats say the community is more excited and organized than it’s been in years. Latino turnout in the caucus exceeded expectations. According to exit polls, Hispanics made up 15 percent of caucusgoers.
Kihuen, who spearheaded Clinton’s Latino outreach in the caucus, said he’s bringing the same “blueprint” to Obama: register, educate and mobilize voters. Hispanics favored Clinton over Obama by a 2-1 margin in January. Most of those voters have since moved firmly into Obama’s camp, Kihuen said.
“The more you get to know Sen. Obama, the more you like him, the more you trust him,” he said. “Latinos will vote for someone that they know and that they trust.”
The McCain campaign, meanwhile, says Hispanics are more evenly split than the polling suggests. Fernando Romero was state director of the campaign’s Hispanic coalition, before he said a surge of support justified the creation of a “Hispanic Democrats for McCain” group.
Hispanics, he said, like McCain for his immigration stance. “We realize borders need to be secured. We realize it’s not amnesty,” said Romero, a Democrat and president of Hispanics in Politics, which endorsed Richardson in the caucus. “But this is a man who has a record of helping the Hispanic community versus someone who has no history.”
Still, Romero said much of the campaign’s Latino effort is being run by volunteers.