Sunday, July 8, 2012 | 2 a.m.
A poll of Hispanic voters in battleground states by an immigration reform advocacy group late last month yielded few surprises.
Hispanic voters, according to the Latino Decisions poll, favor Democrats by wide margins, are excited about President Barack Obama’s decision not to deport young immigrants brought to the county illegally as children and don’t particularly like hard-line immigration policies.
But the data did reveal one potentially troubling trend for the Democrat in Nevada’s key U.S. Senate race: Hispanic voters don’t like U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley quite as much as they like other Democrats.
According to the poll, which has a 4.9 percent margin of error, Hispanic voters favor Berkley 53 percent to 30 percent compared with her Republican opponent, Sen. Dean Heller. Compare that with Obama’s 49-point advantage and with the generic ballot test in which the anonymous Democrat has a 39-point advantage over the anonymous Republican.
“So what?” you might ask. Berkley still has a 23-point advantage. What’s there for her to worry about?
There’s little question that Berkley will win the Hispanic vote. No Republican running statewide has won that demographic since at least 2004 (the farthest back public exit poll data are published.)
But the margin by which she wins the Hispanic vote is key as Berkley works to piece together enough of a coalition to push her to victory in what is expected to be a razor-thin race.
Indeed, Democratic officials acknowledge privately that Berkley likely won’t win if she bleeds Hispanic voters — though they are quite confident that won’t happen.
Since 2008, Nevada Democrats have won the Hispanic vote by huge margins.
Sen. Harry Reid, who credited his victory in part to Hispanic turnout and support, won by 39 points over Republican Sharron Angle in 2010.
In 2008, Obama won the Hispanic vote in Nevada by a 54-point margin — a margin he appears to nearly maintain, according to the poll.
But when Republicans start eating into that advantage — even if just a little bit — the Democrat often ends up losing statewide.
In 2010, Democrat Rory Reid, who ran a flawed campaign in a difficult year, won the Hispanic vote by 32 points and lost statewide. In 2006, Republican Jim Gibbons kept the margin to 18 points against Dina Titus, who also failed to gain statewide traction.
Perhaps the most illustrative race was 2004, when President George W. Bush kept the margin to 21 points. He narrowly won Nevada against Democrat John Kerry.
Democratic operatives say it’s far too early to draw any conclusion from the data.
“Of course, Berkley isn’t where she’s going to be with Latino voters come November,” one Democratic strategist said. “While the president is well known, this is her first statewide run, and she’s just introducing herself to voters.”
The strategist also said the campaign has yet to sink resources into attacking Heller on his record of opposing comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act, as well as his support for Arizona’s stringent immigration law.
Inherent in that statement is a confidence that Berkley has plenty of time to do that. She’s begun, announcing a Latinos for Shelley campaign in April.
But Heller isn’t sitting on his laurels. Republicans have watched Hispanic voters throw victories to Democrats election after election either by ignoring the demographic or downright antagonizing it.
Indeed, some of Heller’s positions on immigration will likely antagonize some Hispanic voters. But his campaign is throwing significant resources into organizing Latino communities, an effort that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“There’s a really big taco chain here, Roberto’s, and there are Dean Heller signs in the windows of all of them. That’s very alarming,” said Michael Flores, a progressive activist, who supports Berkley and believes she’ll have no problem winning the Latino vote.
But he had to tip his hat to Heller’s organizing effort.
“He’s doing a good job of reaching out to Latinos,” Flores said. “They’ve learned their lesson.”