By Elena Shore
New America Media
Hispanic media and other close observers of Latino affairs are reading Tuesday’s elections as a barometer of the public’s views on immigration and Latinos’ ability to show their power at the polls.
Some in the media say there is no question that the anti-immigrant backlash is alive and well. Others predict the anti-immigration tactic could backfire and Republicans could lose votes from the growing and coveted Latino electorate.
In the closely watched special House race in San Diego to replace convicted former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Republican Brian Bilbray, running on an anti-immigrant platform, narrowly beat Democratic challenger Francine Busby (with 49 percent to 45 percent of the vote). The two candidates will face off again in November to compete for a full two-year term.
Republicans are reading the San Diego election as a sign that Bilbray’s anti-immigrant platform helped him win a claim that the candidate himself made and may replicate it in other areas.
“The results (of the San Diego election) will give those who want draconian legislation some momentum, and that could affect the House and Senate,” says Hispanic pollster Sergio Bendixen. “This would make the House more unlikely to compromise with the Senate, and the result would be a deadlock,” he says. Congress would then be unable to agree on any immigration reform bill.
The Republican win in San Diego also may have served as a reality check for Democrats, who spent more than $2 million on the local race in hopes that a Democratic win could signal a shift in November.
“Anyone who knows what’s going on in American politics knows this is going to be a bad year for the Republicans,” says Bendixen. “But it may not be as good as the Democrats thought.”
The real question is the strength of the Hispanic vote.
Tuesday’s election saw an all-time record low turnout for a California statewide race, according to Mark DiCamillo of the San Francisco-based public opinion research firm Field Research. Low turnout means voters’ demographics tend to be different than those of the regular voting population (read older and whiter), he says.
Field Research’s pre-election polls, published on Tuesday, predicted that 73 percent of the voters would be white, 14 percent Latino, 5 percent black and 8 percent Asian and other races.
The general voter population, by contrast, is only 67 percent white. Latinos represent 19 percent of registered voters in California, says DiCamillo, and make up 23 percent of those eligible for registration.
DiCamillo says he wouldn’t extrapolate from the low turnout in this election the extent of Latino participation in the fall. Many new Latino voters register as Independent and were unable to vote for a candidate in Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, says DiCamillo. The issues in the statewide election may not have resonated with Latinos, adds Marcelo Gaete of the Los Angeles-based National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO).
Latino voter turnout is steadily rising over time as registration increases. Latinos’ share of registered voters, DiCamillo says, has almost doubled what it was 20 years ago, when they represented only eight to nine percent of registered voters. Though this is primarily due to population changes, national voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts heavily promoted by U.S. Spanish-language media may also have played a role.
Hispanic media, which were successful in mobilizing national protests over the last few months, are again attempting to capitalize on the energy from the immigrant rights’ protests to drive people to the polls.
Gaete, senior director of programs for NALEO, says Spanish TV giant Univision was a key partner in encouraging Latinos to vote in Tuesday’s elections.
Univision helped promote NALEO’s bilingual voter information hotline through news segments, interviews and public service announcements. The hotline received close to 1,000 calls from people across California on Tuesday, most of them asking about the location of their polling place.
One of the most popular Spanish DJs in the country, Renán Almendárez, “El Cucuy,” played an active role in getting Latinos to the polls as part of the Voter Registration and Education Project. The campaign’s slogan, “Before we marched, now we vote” is an update of the popular slogan from the immigration protests, “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.”
DiCamillo predicts that the Latino voter registration drive, combined with increased national attention on immigration issues, means Latino turnout could increase to 18 or 19 percent in the November elections, equivalent to the percentage of Latino voters in the 2004 presidential election.