For Republicans, the math is crystal clear: If President Bush wins the same percentage of the vote among every ethnic group this November that he received in 2000, he will lose the election by 3 million votes, according to a report by Republican pollster Matthew Dowd. And much of the increased Democratic margin could come from Hispanics, the fastest-growing sector of the electorate.
About 5.9 million Hispanics went to the polls in 2000, just 27 percent of the Hispanic voting-age population. But because of population growth, if the same percentage turns out this time, the number of Hispanic voters will exceed 6.7 million. Thus Mr. Bush would have to improve on the 35 percent of the Hispanic vote he received in 2000, while the Democratic candidate seeks to repeat the 62-percent share Democratic candidate Al Gore received.
The states with the biggest Hispanic populations – California, Texas, and New York – are considered safe in either the Republican or Democratic column, so the Hispanic vote will not be pivotal there. But in five "battleground" states – Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada – Hispanic voters will play a critical role. All but one of these states voted for Mr. Bush in 2000.
But the Hispanic vote has proven difficult to predict. "There is no Latino vote," says Fernando Oaxaca, a founder of the Republican Hispanic National Assembly. "You've got variations from region to region, from different nationalities, language preferences, [and] length of time in the U.S."
Yes, Cubans in South Florida routinely vote heavily Republican, while Puerto Ricans and Mexicans vote just as heavily Democratic. But the latter groups have been known to split their votes and provide significant spikes to mayoral Republican candidates such as Richard Riordan in Los Angeles and Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in New York. And there is always the example of Ronald Reagan, who in his 1984 re-election campaign captured 42 percent of the national Hispanic vote.
Mr. Bush's policies toward Latin America and immigration make the 2004 Hispanic vote particularly difficult to predict. According to Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixen, a study last June showed 69 percent of Hispanics felt Mr. Bush had not kept his promise to make Latin America a top priority, and almost as many were unhappy about his failure to move forward with some sort of legalization for undocumented immigrants. Of those who gave Mr. Bush negatives on these two issues, 60 percent said they plan to vote for a Democrat for president, while only 24 percent said they would vote for Mr. Bush. With Mr. Bush's announcement of an ambitious new temporary worker program, those numbers are likely to shift in the coming months.
John Zogby, CEO of bipartisan polling firm Zogby International, says that Mr. Bush's approach to Latin America could still hurt him if the Democrats highlight the issue. "Given the close elections we're having nationally, we are not talking about moving tens of millions of voters in one direction or another," Mr. Zogby says. "Moving a few thousand voters can decide an election."
Other experts warn that equating the Hispanic vote with immigration issues is a mistake because most Hispanic voters are U.S. born. "Education, the economy, safety in the neighborhoods is the main concern for Latinos," says Harry Pachon of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.
But perhaps more important than defining key issues will be turning out the vote in those five battleground states. Florida ranks as the biggest prize, but the Hispanic vote there no longer fits political molds. The 2000 Census confirmed that Florida has become the fastest-growing state for Puerto Ricans: More than 500,000 boricuas, many of them retired New Yorkers, now reside along an east-west corridor centering on Orlando. The state also has growing Dominican, Colombian, and Nicaraguan populations. When Mel Martinez resigned as HUD secretary to run for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Florida, Republican strategists were aware that his political base is in central Florida.
In New Mexico much has changed in the four years since the state delivered a razor-thin margin of victory to Mr. Gore. Former Clinton cabinet member Bill Richardson is now governor, and a popular elected official even among some Republicans. The appointed chair of the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Richardson wants to exert a major impact on this race. He engineered the first Hispanic-oriented presidential Democratic debate there, and he has established a $4 million nonprofit fund, Moving America Forward, to mobilize Hispanic voters in New Mexico and three of the other battleground states.
"Bill wants to run for president in 2008," says a top Democratic leader. "And he's made no secret of wanting to be considered as a vice-presidential running mate this year."
But dwarfing Mr. Richardson's effort is the $55-million voter education and mobilization operation put together by New York union leader Dennis Rivera. While normally seen as a labor leader (he sits on the AFL-CIO executive committee) the Puerto Rico-born Mr. Rivera is even more influential among Hispanic politicians than he is in organized labor. For this election, he has developed a novel strategy called "Bush Bucks." As part of the campaign, he has earmarked $35 million from his union's war chest to dispatch 1,000 organizers outside of New York to work full-time in the battleground states to defeat Mr. Bush.
In addition, Mr. Rivera and Democratic National Committee member Bill Lynch have joined Carl Pope of the Sierra Club to create yet another voter registration group. The organization already has raised more than $20 million to target "marginalized" populations. Given that at least 5.5 million Hispanic citizens of voting age remain unregistered, Mr. Rivera believes a massive campaign to reach even a portion of that population in states such as New Mexico and Arizona could produce unexpected results.
Arizona is a state that Bill Clinton won in 1996, but Mr. Gore lost in 2000 by less than 100,000 votes. The state is 25 percent Hispanic and in the last four years has elected a Democratic woman governor and added another Hispanic congressman, Raul Grijalva. More than half of its population growth since 2000 has been Hispanic.
"It's nasty there because of the border and immigration question," says Mr. Oaxaca. "You may have some anti-Republican backlash among Hispanics because of those attacks on immigrants at the border."
In Nevada, Mr. Bush won by less than 22,000 votes in 2000. But the state's Hispanic segment nearly doubled between 1990 and 2000, to almost 20 percent of the population, and many of those Hispanics are highly organized through unions in the hotel and gaming industries.
As for Colorado, Mr. Bush won the state's vote with 51 percent in 2000, but his environmental policies have hurt him there. That development, coupled with the growth of Colorado's Hispanic population, points to a much closer presidential vote this year.
With Republicans expected to raise record amounts of money for this year's campaign, they should flood Spanish-language media with advertising, as they did in 2000 in Florida and other states in an effort to get out their message. Meanwhile, Democrats will spend the first few months of the year battling over their nomination.
So far none of the Democratic candidates has attracted much support in the Hispanic community, although Howard Dean has the largest list of Hispanic supporters including Arizona's Mr. Grijalva, union leader Mr. Rivera, and members of Congress Robert Menendez (New Jersey), Nydia Velazquez (New York), and Loretta Sanchez and Lucille Roybal Allard (California).
Dick Gephardt carries the backing of Arizona Congressman Ed Pastor. John Kerry has support from former Clinton appointees Henry Cisneros and Aida Alvarez. And Al Sharpton of New York has support from Congressman Jose Serrano and former Bronx Democratic Party Chief Roberto Ramirez.
Whatever the outcome in November, the Hispanic vote will play a larger role than ever, and it will be complex and unpredictable.
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