Multicultural voters may hold the key to the 2008 election

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By Dan Durazo

Multicultural populations have grown rapidly since the 2004 general election, climbing to 100 million people, or one third of the U.S. population. Given that election fever is high, some political pundits point to this group as being key to what is expected to be a very tight presidential race in November.

During the presidential primaries, African-American voters turned out overwhelmingly to vote for Sen. Barrack Obama, leading him to collect about 80 percent of the African-American vote in Super Tuesday states. 

It’s virtually a given that these same voters will turn out in droves again to vote for Obama in November.  Despite the long odds, the African-American vote is seen as critical in swing states if Sen. John McCain is to win the election, and he has taken steps to make inroads into that community. 

Asian-Americans, on the other hand, are a group made up of populations that identify themselves in terms of nationality (i.e., Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc.) and are evenly split between the Democratic and Republican parties (48 to46 percent).  Experts in outreach to the Asian market suggest that Asian voters also may be critical in swing states during a tight race and that campaigns should gear up to activate these voters who in the past have experienced turnout rates near 30 percent.

With the vast majority of African-Americans seen as Obama partisans and Asian-Americans presumably split fairly evenly between the two parties, Hispanic-Americans have become the focus of campaign strategists in the Obama and McCain camps.

The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California predicts that 9 million Hispanic voters will turn out for the 2008 presidential contest.  That’s an increase of 23 percent, or 1.7
million, over the Latino turnout in 2004.

Sen. Hillary Clinton outpolled Obama among Hispanics by a margin of 63 to35 percent on Super Tuesday.  That margin of popularity largely helped her carry the important Hispanic hotbeds of California, Texas and New Mexico. Now that Clinton is out of the race, where do Hispanics go next?

“They are moving to Obama now,” claims Mark Magaña, president of Washington-based political consulting firm Hispanic Strategy Group.  Magaña is a former Clinton White House staffer who worked as a Hispanic outreach volunteer for the Obama campaign during the primaries.  “Latino voters have transitioned quickly from Clinton to Obama.”

A Gallup Poll based on aggregated data from daily poll tracking in May, seems to prove he’s right.  It found that Hispanics preferred Obama to McCain by a margin of 62 to 29 percent.  President Bush captured about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2004 election, providing an important boost to his campaign.  And it may be the margin of Latino voters that carries the day on Nov. 4. 

“There’s no question Latinos will vote Democratic in the presidential election; the big question is, how many and by how much? That’s the prediction of Harry Pachon, president of the Tomás Rivera Policy
Institute.  “The GOP can pick up Latino voters, but if the Dems run a good campaign like Bill Clinton did, they may benefit from a swing that may be anywhere from 12 percent to 20 percent of the Latino vote.”

Magaña says this swing will be critical to each candidate’s chance of success.  “The Latino voter is going to be extremely vital in four or more of the swing states, including Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida. A swing of just 5 to 10 percent in how Latinos vote in those four states alone could determine the election.”

For Obama’s campaign to resonate with Latinos, Pachon says, he needs to focus on issues important to them. He also needs to understand the attitudinal differences between U.S.-born Latinos and naturalized Latino voters who make up 35 to 40 percent of Hispanic voters. Chances are the U.S.-born group may be farther along the socioeconomic scale. 

Consequently, they tend to be more concerned with issues such as education, taxes, the war and the economy while immigrants tend to be more preoccupied with immigration, access to health care, jobs and education.  While Obama’s popularity among Latinos is strong, McCain is not writing off the Hispanic vote.  He is well known in the Southwest and, as one of the authors of the Senate’s
comprehensive bill on immigration, McCain is a respected moderate voice on the issue. 

“His Horatio Alger story plays well with Latinos,” says Pachon.  “If you work hard you will get ahead.  Latinos identify themselves as ‘working families.’ McCain needs to focus on working-family issues.”

Another thing McCain has going for him is the perceived fragile party loyalty among Hispanics, particularly among naturalized Hispanics where there is no longstanding tradition of voting for a certain party. 

“Latinos are much less locked into one party or the other and are more likely to vote according to their independent preference for a candidate,” says Magaña. Unfortunately for McCain, Obama wasted no time in solidifying support among what may be his most powerful tool for reaching Hispanic voters: surrogates.  Latino members of Congress are generally wildly popular among their constituents.  Obama met in mid-June for the first time with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who had overwhelmingly supported Clinton during the primaries, to ask for their support. 

As expected, they fell in behind him.  Obama’s ability to use these campaign surrogates during the election will be a huge boost to his campaign’s ability to reach out to Latinos.

Despite this advantage, election watchers expect a very close race. “I think Obama will win the election by just one state,” predicts Obama supporter Magaña. 

Whoever is victorious, an excruciatingly slim margin will mean that ethnic voters may be more important in 2008 than in any other election in history. 

Dan Durazo is a Richmond-based marketing consultant and writer.  He blogs on Multicultural Marketing, Corporate Social Responsibility and Public Relations issues at http://www.dandurazo.com

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