By Marcela Carrera
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON - Latino voters in swing states could be a decisive factor in determining the outcome of presidential race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, analysts say.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties have begun outreach efforts to secure the Latino vote in these states.
“The main thing we like to underscore is how critical a role the Hispanic community will have in this upcoming election,” said Marcelo Gaete, senior director of programs for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. The association conducted research among Latinos in several battleground states.
“In Arizona, there are 70,000 new Latino registered voters,” Gaete said. “In Florida, there will be 160,000 new Latino voters.”
Florida and Arizona are described as swing states those that can go Democratic (“blue,” in current political parlance) or Republican (“red”) along with Ohio, Virginia, Missouri, Michigan, New Mexico and Nevada.
“All of a sudden, you’re going to introduce new voters in these states,” Gaete said. “It will change the makeup in the electoral map.”
Four years ago, 63 percent of Latinos voted for Al Gore, according to Voter News Service exit polls.
The New Democratic Network’s Hispanic Project, which was created in 2003 to ensure that the Democratic Party succeeds in communicating to Latinos, released a poll in May that supports that Latino influence could be essential in swing states where the Latino population has dramatically increased in recent years.
The findings are based on a telephone poll of 1,800 registered Hispanic voters interviewed between April 15 and April 29. The sample was designed to be representative of the Hispanic electorate in Florida, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.
The poll found that about two in five Latino voters in those states were undecided or might switch their preference before the Nov. 9 election.
“As of now, that kind of swing vote definitely seems to be helping Democrats in some very key states and some districts,” Richie said.
In Florida, Bush led Kerry, 55 percent to 35 percent. Most of the remaining 10 percent were undecided, with a few choosing independent candidate Ralph Nader. The margin of error for the sample of 600 voters was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
In Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, Kerry led Bush by about 60 percent to 30 percent. In each state, the poll sampled 400 voters, and the margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points. Ten percent were either undecided or chose Nader.
A smaller sample polled in July showed nearly identical numbers in Florida, and Kerry ahead of Bush 65 percent to 26 percent in the three Southwestern states. The poll reported 9 percent undecided or preferring Nader. It sampled 500 voters in Florida and 500 across the three Southwestern states and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Robert Richie, executive director for the Center for Voting and Democracy, said he believes the Democratic Party is already garnering support from Latino voters because of voters’ disenchantment with the Bush administration.
Richie and Gaete said the tight presidential race makes the Latino vote increasingly important.
The Republican National Committee is committed to encouraging Latinos to vote for the GOP in 2004, said Nicole Guillemard, director of outreach. “Reaching out to Latinos is incredibly important,” she said.
Republicans are employing what they call the “Team Leader Project,” through which Bush administration officials speak to communities about the party’s legislative proposals to assist Latinos.
“It’s a great grassroots program,” Guillemard said. Guillemard also said that in March the committee sent out a registration bus with a goal to register 3 million voters. To date, the program has registered about 2 million.
Kerry staffers have organized their own grass-roots initiative, “Unidos con Kerry.”
“Through this initiative, we are mobilizing grass roots to grass tops,” said campaign spokeswoman Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli. “They are bringing in more Latinos who have not been politically active before.”
Rodriguez-Ciampoli also said the Kerry campaign will try to garner support by using Hispanic media.
“Sen. Kerry had ads in Spanish in the primary season, which was unprecedented,” she said. “We’re going to have a new line of aggressive ads coming out soon.”
Gaete said he believes both parties have substantially improved their outreach programs since 2000.
”Still, they need to do more,” Gaete said. “This election will be really tight. Hispanics are really looking closely at the parties. They are looking to see which party benefits them most.”