With Sen. Hillary Clinton out of the presidential race after having won most of the Hispanic vote in the primaries, Latinos and their issues are about to receive unprecedented attention from Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. After all, neither of them can win the White House without the increasingly powerful "voto latino."
Because the number of eligible Latino voters has grown considerably in the past few years and because many Latinos live in states that could swing the presidential election, their vote has become more important than it ever has been in U.S. history.
Based on historic voting patterns and current polls, it is safe to assume that Obama will win the majority of the Hispanic vote. But the question is: By how much? A close victory among Latinos would not be enough for Obama to win the presidency. In the Hispanic community, he needs to win by a near landslide.
In order to become our next "presidente," Obama needs more than 60 percent of the Hispanic vote, which is precisely where the polls have him now. A recent Gallup Poll shows Obama winning 62 percent of the national Hispanic vote, compared with 29 percent for McCain.
This means that while Obama faces a challenge in retaining the Democrats who voted overwhelmingly for Clinton in the primaries, McCain has a much bigger challenge. Thanks to the anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed by many of his fellow Republicans in the past few years, McCain is at least 10 percentage points away from the votes he needs from Latinos.
Both Republican and Democratic strategists believe that unless McCain can rally close to 40 percent of Latinos to vote for him, as they did for President Bush, he can say adios to the presidency.
But that's only if you measure the race using a national yardstick instead of the state-by-state Electoral College contest, which really determines who will be president.
While Latinos represent only 9 percent of the registered voters nationally, they constitute a much larger share of the electorate in key swing states that will be closely contested this year, including Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Colorado. It is in those states that McCain needs to do much better among Latinos.
But how do McCain and Obama win the hearts and minds of about 13 million registered Latino voters? What do they have to do to obtain the Hispanic support they need in those key states? The answer varies, depending on the candidate.
On many issues, such as immigration, health care, education, the war in Iraq, and the economy, Obama needs to reassure Latinos that he would be just like Clinton. And yet on other issues, such as a free trade agreement with Colombia and negotiating without preconditions with Cuban dictator Raul Castro, he needs to back away from the positions he took as he competed with Clinton during the primaries. Unless he changes his absurd position on this particular free trade deal and shows some maturity in foreign policy, he can kiss goodbye the Cuban-American and Colombian-American vote. Unless he shows some understanding of Latin America, a region of the world he never even has visited, he will continue to do as poorly among the many foreign-born Latinos who voted for Clinton in the primaries.
On the other side, most of McCain's problems with Latinos are not of his own making. Many Latinos recognize that McCain has been a friend who has taken political risks for defending the Hispanic immigrant community. If he doesn't get close to 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, it probably will be because the same Latinos who gradually had been leaving the Democratic Party now are returning in droves, thanks to many other Republicans who have spent the past few years pandering to xenophobic demagogues.
According to a survey released in December by the Pew Hispanic Center, 57 percent of registered Latino voters now call themselves Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party, while only 23 percent say they align with the GOP. That 34-point difference is strikingly larger than the 21-point gap between the two parties in July 2006.
While catering to anti-immigrant extremists in his own party during the primaries, McCain alienated many Latinos who considered him their champion when he argued in support of comprehensive immigration reform. He will need to convince Latino voters that after he secures the U.S. borders as he has vowed to do, he indeed will promote a compassionate legalization plan for the 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here. And he will have to show Latinos that he can get this done faster than Obama.
Bottom line: In spite of the xenophobes who will squirm, the nation's 46 million Latinos are about to become one of the most sought-after and pandered-to ethnic groups in U.S. political history. And after centuries of neglect, discrimination and disenfranchisement, it's about time!
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.