December 21, 2007

Obama Surge Stalls with Latinos

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media

A local Latino rhythm-and-dance troupe gyrated on a stage emblazoned with brown plastic cacti and colorful piñatas. The group was a warm-up act for the main event: A speech by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on a campaign stop in heavily Hispanic San Antonio, TX., last July.

Mercifully, Obama didn’t pander — as some candidates have done — and toss out a Berlitz-sounding punch line or two in Spanish. But the crowd listened respectfully to Obama’s stock pitch that he’s the best candidate to make change and to address the needs of Latino voters. He even brashly attempted to wrap himself in the mantle of Cesar Chavez, the beloved and revered 1960s Latino labor leader and civil rights icon.

It didn’t do much for him. Polls still showed that he wallowed at the bottom in Latino voter support. Six months later, even while the apparent Obama surge sets tongues wagging, he still wallows near the bottom with Latino voters. A new poll by Impremedia for Spanish-language newspapers found that Hillary Clinton is still the runaway choice over Obama among Latino voters in California, Illinois, New York, Florida and Texas. These are the five states with the biggest number and percentage of Latino voters. California and New York are solidly Democratic and not in play for the GOP. Texas is solidly Republican and not in play for the Democrats. Florida and Illinois are in play. Both will be hotly contested, and Latino numbers and voters have soared in both states. But it’s Florida where the Latino vote can make or break the Democratic nominee.

The Clinton edge over Obama is huge there, and the task and worry for Obama is what to do about it. It’s daunting, but it also tells why the apparent Obama surge has ground to a clunk among Latino voters. One explanation for the stall is explainable and understandable. It’s a matter of politics and comfortability. The other explanation for his stall is ugly and uncomfortable. Latino voters overwhelmingly back Democrats. And as the GOP candidates continue to shoot themselves in the foot with Latino voters on immigration, the defections from the GOP have gone from a trickle to a flood. That helps Clinton. She’s the top and best-known Democrat. Latinos cheer her stance on health care, and education, and they like Bill. They backed him in big numbers for president in 1992 and in even big numbers for his reelection in 1996.

It’s just the opposite with Obama. He’s still too new, too untested, and with virtually no widely known track record on bilingual education, immigration reform, and family and values issues. He remains too much of an unknown quantity to engender much support, let alone enthusiasm, at least at this point among a significant percent of Latino voters.

But Obama also bucks up against another problem; a problem that’s not of his making, yet he’s an unintended victim of. That’s the latent and sometimes open tensions and hostilities that flare between blacks and Latinos. They exploded to the surface in some cities such as Los Angeles over jobs, and immigration, and at times have exploded in gang and prison violence. That could severely damage Obama’s court of Latino voters in the nation’s biggest delegate state, California. In Los Angeles County, Latinos make up nearly one-third of the voters.

The contentiousness leaped off the page in a recent poll by the ethnic media consortium New America Media. It found much mistrust and fear among a big percent of blacks and Latinos toward each other. That animosity has been badly marred by vicious and vile stereotypes about each other. In the poll, a slight majority of blacks finger pointed Latinos for taking jobs from blacks and eroding their political power. A near majority of Latinos finger-pointed blacks as crime prone and were fearful of them. A majority of Latinos said that they preferred to do business with whites. Few Latinos they preferred to do business with blacks.

Obama will do everything he can to whittle a point or two off the colossal gap that Clinton holds over him among Latinos. He will show up at every major Latino political event and gathering, will air a torrent of Spanish language ads in suddenly turned swing states such as Nevada, and will try to corral endorsements from the few top gun Latino elected officials that haven’t committed to Clinton. He will talk about his early days as a community organizer in Southside Chicago, in which he worked to combat poverty among blacks and Latino.

That won’t be enough to trump the lingering and troubling fear and mistrust that make a black candidate, no matter how seemingly appealing and attractive to other voters, too much of a risk factor for far too many Latino voters to back.

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