By Adam J. Segal
Director, Hispanic Voter Project
July 21, 2003 Hispanic voters will play a historic new role in the early Democratic presidential primaries next year. For the first time, two states with large, growing Hispanic populations, New Mexico (Hispanics are 42.1% of the population) and Arizona (25.3%), will hold primaries or caucuses on the same date in the first multi-state round of Democratic presidential contests, February 3, 2004 Hispanic Tuesday.
With a large competitive field of Democratic candidates now in place, the growing Hispanic communities in early primary states have greater ability to influence the outcome of primaries than at any previous time. This means that earlier than ever before, and at a higher rate than ever before, Hispanics in key electoral states will be part of some of the important first primaries, wielding more deciding influence on which candidate will represent the Democratic Party in the general election.
Adding to the historic nature of next year’s presidential election, Hispanics, broadly defined, are now the largest minority population in the United States.
Now more than 38.8 million strong, they are rapidly commanding new influence on American culture and society.
This election will be a test of the diverse Hispanic community’s voting influence during the primaries and general election than in previous years.
While post-2000 redistricting across the nation may have curtailed Hispanic influence in many congressional districts, the community’s ability to influence the presidential primaries and general election has increased. This is a result of shifting demographics and the fact that Hispanic voters comprise a significant and growing part of the electorate in key general election battleground states. Despite this opportunity, community organizers, candidates, parties, and interest groups face the obstacle of registering new Hispanic voters and ensuring high turnout on election days. According to Party spokespeople and activists interviewed, the Party and its affiliated groups will make substantially more resources available for Hispanic outreach than in previous elections.
The potential rising influence of Hispanic voters can make the difference for Democrats in another close presidential election in 2004. With as many as three million new voters, the diverse Hispanic population in the United States could become the single most important key to Democratic success, assuming past allegiance. Recent early polls indicating a small gap between support for Bush and a Democratic nominee demonstrate just how close the election could be in the Hispanic community.
As a result, early attention by the Democratic candidates will be critical to their success. Many Democratic campaign strategies and messages have emerged and are likely to be at the center of the general election pitch to Hispanic voters.
To win Arizona and New Mexico, and influence the California (32.4% Hispanic), New York (15.1%), Texas (32%) and Florida (16.8%) primaries, where Hispanics will also play a major role, candidates will need to demonstrate their credentials before the Hispanic community and develop better grassroots strategies than in previous elections.
While money and endorsements will play a critical role in disseminating each candidates’ message and earning broader support, many top officials recently interviewed warned that candidates and the Democratic Party will need to take a more personal, dedicated approach to reaching this community. Grassroots efforts are needed in order to win wide support and develop national community enthusiasm. Success in the primaries will be critical to victory in the general election. Some Democratic Party faction leaders are putting resources behind new independent efforts, and expectations are that millions of dollars will be raised for these plans.
With President Bush actively courting the community, how Democrats reach out to Hispanics will again have national general election implications. In 2000, the campaign of Vice President Al Gore and the Democratic Party made Spanish-language advertising and other communications efforts a lesser priority than the Bush campaign and Republican Party.
Bush went on to win a larger percentage of the Hispanic vote than previous Republican nominees, unnerving many in the Democratic Party that had warned about taking minority support for granted.
“We’re throughout this country and a lot of states [that were decided in 2000] by one or two percent,” said Texas Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a Democratic group. “This country’s pretty well divided, it’s still divided, even after the last election. And this race could go one way or the other. In fact I think that because of the numbers and the growth… that Republicans have no choice but to make inroads. And I think [that is why] they are going to go after the Hispanic and Latino vote.”
Democratic Party officials are excited about this year’s primary calendar and how it allows Hispanics to have greater influence on the process. “It’s a very diverse, very competitive, balanced, orderly calendar,” said Guillermo Meneses, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “We are seeing some small, medium and large states… with large Hispanic populations that are playing key roles. You are seeing more and more, as the numbers of Hispanics grow, states with large Hispanic populations will play an even larger role in deciding who the Democratic nominee will be. They will continue to see their political power grow.”
Hispanic Voters in Arizona and New Mexico, Early Power Brokers for the First Time Democratic officials are excited about the role Hispanics will play in the new calendar.
“It is going to be a historic opportunity because of the dramatic population growth in states having early primaries with significant Hispanic populations,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman and New Jersey Congressman Bob Menendez.
Hispanic voters have a historic opportunity to decide who will be the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and also who will become President during the general election. Community leaders, regardless of party affiliation, will need to commit themselves to registering millions of new voters and getting them out to vote during the primaries and on Election Day in November 2004 in order to ensure the community takes advantage of this opportunity.
This is an abbreviated version of a much longer analyis of the Democratic Primary. For the complete report go to: www.hispanic.bz/hispanic_tuesday_the_hispanic_vote_and_the_2004_primaries.htm. Adam J. Segal is Director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University. The project is based at JHU’s Washington Center for the Study of American Government in Washington, DC.