By Neil H. Simon
The Democrats went back to Florida this past weekend, the state where 537 votes and a U.S. Supreme Court decision cost them the White House seven years ago. Their mission: to win back Hispanic voters who voted Republican in record numbers in 2004.
As the 2008 Democratic contenders spoke to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials conference in Orlando, it was clear the differences among their campaigns and the parties had widened.
Republican candidates, despite establishing unique Hispanic outreach divisions on their campaigns, by and large skipped this chance to interact with Hispanics at Disney World of all places. And as a party, having overwhelmingly killed immigration reform in the Senate last week, Republicans now face new challenges retaining the very voters President Bush so successfully brought into their fold.
The Democrats’ Approach
With polls now showing Hispanics increasingly favoring Democrats, the campaigns have taken divergent courses in reaching them during the primary process. Beyond having “en español” buttons on all their Web sites, most Democratic candidates have opted to roll their Hispanic outreach efforts into their larger campaign structure.
The major exception is the major front-runner: Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY). She has a director of Hispanic media, a director of Hispanic outreach, not to mention the first-ever Hispanic female as chief of staff for a presidential campaign.
“It’s a given: The Latino community is the largest minority. It has to be done,” said Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli, Sen. Clinton’s director of Hispanic communications.
Every other Democratic presidential candidate, including Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM), the country’s first Hispanic contender, has adopted a more holistic approach toward winning Hispanic voters.
“We don’t pigeonhole one group,” said Katie Roberts, a spokesperson for the Richardson campaign. “He speaks to all issues. It’s not assuming one issue is the community’s issue.”
On Saturday, Gov. Richardson played to his strengths at the Latino conference, calling the crowd, “mi gente, mi familia,” my people, my family.
But this is rare. Gov. Richardson, whose mother is from Mexico, usually tries to play above his own ethnic identity a strategy that in part keeps the novelty of his “first Hispanic candidate” status from defining his campaign.
“I’m not running as a Latino candidate. I’m running as an American governor who is enormously proud to be Latino,” he said. Perhaps that is why he remains relatively unknown, even among Hispanics. A recent national Gallup/USA Today poll taken of Hispanic voters showed Gov. Richardson trailing Sen. Clinton by 48 points and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) by two.
An aide said Sen. Richardson was considering staffing changes to improve his own outreach to Hispanics. “We are looking to hire more toward that moving forward,” Ms. Roberts said, adding that Gov. Richardson hired a Hispanic political director in Nevada.
When it comes to talking about the Hispanic vote, Sen. Obama’s campaign continually goes to the issue of immigration and the Senator’s support for family reunification amendments, but in Orlando, Sen. Obama was put on the defensive over his support for a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Do I believe fences make good neighbors and are the right approach? No, I don’t believe that,” Sen. Obama told the crowd, despite voting for the fence along with Sens. Clinton, Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Joe Biden (D-DE).
Saying One Thing, Doing Another
Despite Saturday’s forum before the elected Latino crowd, and despite most campaigns saying they make Hispanic outreach a routine part of their overall strategy, the week behind seems to show how one-dimensional the campaigns still tend to think.
On Thursday, all the Democrats were at Howard University for the PBS All-American Presidential Forum, taking questions from three journalists of color in a debate that was billed as a way to get the candidates to engage with minority voters. This was the same day the Senate killed the immigration bill, but there was not one question on that topic. This was to be a night of diversity, but only one campaign (Sen. Dodd’s) brought a Hispanic surrogate to the post-debate spin room.
They talked education. Sen. John Edwards said, “We have two public school systems one for the wealthy and one for everyone else.”
They talked crime. Sen. Obama said, “We need a president who sets the example that justice is not just us, but it’s everybody.”
But when looking at the mostly black crowd at Howard University, it was almost as if the candidates collectively agreed the “diversity debate” was for the blacks and any talk directed to a Hispanic audience could be saved for Saturday in Florida. If that’s not what they thought, it is certainly what they did.
Each candidate seems to have found a way to say they have deeper ties to the Hispanic community. Sen. Dodd became bilingual as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Rep. Dennis Kucinich took Spanish courses to be able to work more effectively with Hispanic neighborhoods when he was elected mayor of Cleveland.
Then there’s Sen. Edwards, who is hoping his focus on poverty and union organizing will resonate with working class Hispanic voters, and that his work on minimum wage ballot initiatives in key Hispanic states such as Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado in 2006 will have a pay off in 2008.
“All of our campaign staff are involved and included in our outreach to the Latino community,” said David Medina, political director for Sen. Edwards’ campaign. “That’s the best way on a policy, political, and message level to address the needs of the Latino community.”
History, Hype, and the Hispanics
After Thursday’s debate, Gov. Richardson played down his own heritage, saying being “bicultural helps,” especially with foreign policy, but he played up his party’s diversity. “We’re going to elect a Hispanic, black, or woman president, and that’s historic,” he said.
“We have a field that by its diversity is showcasing the Democratic Party is going to represent everyone in the country,” said party spokesman Luis Miranda. “Hispanic outreach is part and parcel of everything we do instead of a tack on.”
In 2004, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics made up 14 percent of the U.S. population and 8 percent of registered voters, but only 6 percent of voters on Election Day.
For all the hype around Hispanic voters, with the Democrats rearranging their calendar to put Hispanic-heavy Nevada right after the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, and Florida intending to hold its primary Jan. 29, Hispanics still have to meet the campaigns halfway to dispel any doubts about their growing clout.