Monday, Nov. 10, 2008 | 2 a.m.
A few days before early voting began Oct. 18, Univision anchor Luis Felipe Godinez stood next to a giant thermometer like the ones used for fundraising drives. He issued a challenge to his audience.
Godinez not only urged viewers to get out and vote. He wanted them to wind up being 15 percent of the electorate, seemingly a stretch because only 12 percent of registered voters in Clark County are Hispanic.
“We aspired to greatness,” explained Chris Roman, general manager of Entravision Communications Corp., Univision’s parent company.
Greatness is what Hispanic voters in Nevada appear to have achieved — not only because they cast 15 percent of all ballots Nov. 4, making for an unprecedented turnout, but also because more of them supported Democratic candidate Barack Obama, percentage-wise, than almost anywhere in the nation, according to exit polls.
Nevada’s Hispanic vote was 10 percent of turnout in 2004, a 50-percent rise in four years, placing the state in the top five for increased participation nationwide, said Andres Ramirez, vice president of Hispanic programs at NDN, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization. And exit polls suggest that 76 percent of Hispanic voters supported Obama, tying Nevada for second nationwide, after New Jersey. In 2004, 60 percent of Hispanics voted for Democratic candidate John Kerry.
Official Clark County Election Department figures for Tuesday’s election are not yet available.
The spike in turnout and support for the Democratic candidate are linked and can be traced to local and national events.
A number of groups have seen for some time that Nevada’s Hispanic vote was becoming increasingly important in national elections, factoring into the state’s role as a battleground state. Several in particular identified the steps needed to stir the voting bloc perennially referred to as a “sleeping giant”: nationalize the tens of thousands in Clark County who weren’t citizens, register them to vote, teach them how voting works and get them to the polls.
Univision put its plan into motion in 2006. The campaign, which included partnering with private groups such as the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, was unprecedented for the Spanish-language media giant. It grew to include toll-free numbers for information on becoming a citizen and another on registering to vote. The two numbers received more than 60,000 calls in the past year-plus.
Locally, Univision crews pushed citizenship and voting through neighborhood events and on the air. The Las Vegas station aired more than $800,000 worth of public service announcements since January.
And though Univision pressed for citizenship and voting nationwide, Nevada had a jump on other swing states with significant Hispanic populations because of this election’s first-ever early caucus, Roman noted. That gave all involved from January on to focus on one thing: the general election.
Another key participant was the Culinary Union. Nearly half of its 60,000 members in Southern Nevada are Hispanic. The union backs a nonprofit organization called the Citizenship Project, which has helped more than 5,000 people become citizens since 2006.
Pilar Weiss, the Culinary’s political director, notes that many were trying to beat the increases in citizenship fees that took place in 2007. Still others were pushed into becoming citizens by the proposed House legislation that would have made helping illegal immigrants a felony.
That 2006 bill sparked marches for immigration reform across the nation, one of the first in a string of events that began souring Hispanics on the GOP, according to Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington, D.C.-based group. Those events include the economic downturn, which has hit Hispanics particularly hard, resulting in unemployment rates at least a point higher than those for the general population.
Between rising prices and an environment increasingly hostile to immigrants, more than 1.4 million people applied for citizenship nationwide during the past year-plus.
One of those was Marco Rauda, 27, a Salvadoran who entered the country illegally with his mother and sister in 1988, became a legal resident through political asylum but didn’t pursue citizenship until this year.
Rauda was also state director for Democracia USA, a nonpartisan, Florida-based group with a crew of about 35 people in the valley’s Hispanic neighborhoods since March, focusing on the same steps as Univision and the Culinary Union. His group registered 10,000 to vote and some of them, including Rauda, voted for the first time on Nov. 4.
In Southern Nevada, the Culinary Union also joined with three other unions to reach 110,000 voters, pushing voting and Obama’s candidacy. The coalition used 500 volunteers on Election Day to knock on doors and take people to the polls.
“We knew first-time voters wouldn’t vote just because of ads,” Weiss said.
The end result of the efforts by these and other groups, plus the national and local events that turned Hispanic voters against Republican candidate John McCain was that an estimated 108,000 Hispanic Nevadans voted for Obama, 11,000 fewer votes than the Democrat’s margin of victory in the state, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Ramirez said “the million dollar question” is whether the turnout — and the support for Democrats — will continue.
Rauda said his organization is maintaining a local presence by continuing its citizenship and voter registration drives.
Weiss is convinced the valley has reached what she called a “critical mass.” Naturalization and political participation will continue, she said
“You’re seeing the beginning of an established voting bloc,” Weiss added.
And Roman noted that Univision has scheduled voter registration drives for December, in anticipation of April’s city council races in the valley.
“We have no choice,” he said. “Our time has come.”