Why Have Latinos Started Voting For Obama?

Connecticut, the first state where they did, provides some instructive clues.

Melinda Tuhus

As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton head into the key Ohio and Texas primaries on Tuesday, March 4, each candidate is looking to shore up the support of Latinos, whose votes will be crucial to victory. Latino supporters of Obama in Connecticut say they have valuable lessons to share, since they pulled off the first victory among Latinos for Obama in a primary, back on Feb. 5, Super Tuesday. 

The big Latino push for Obama in Connecticut started late in the game, only a couple of weeks before the primary, when it became clear that Connecticut would matter in the race for delegates and for bragging rights in racking up state victories. Clinton and Obama went into Super Tuesday evenly matched, but since then he’s made a clean sweep of successive primaries, making Ohio and Texas must-wins for Clinton, and the Latino vote even more critical.

When Latinos in Connecticut realized the state was in play, elected and appointed officials at the state and city level, as well as well-known Latinos in the private sector, initiated a grassroots effort in which they localized, and in some cases translated into Spanish, some standard campaign material. 

Kica Matos, a top mayoral aide in New Haven, is well-known and respected in the Latino community for her leading role in creating the Elm City I.D., the nation’s first municipal resident card that specifically covers the undocumented. She and others believed that outreach by local Latinos to other Latinos would be key to turnout. The story wasn’t some national mailing that you got that came from the campaign,” Matos says. It really was dialogue and communications from people who live in this community about why it was that we supported Barack. We talked to people, we went in the neighborhoods.”

From the Obama campaign’s Hartford office, volunteer organizer Ed Vargas coordinated the state’s Latinos for Obama group, which he called a mostly home-grown effort. African Americans reached out to us, and we decided to do what we could do help them,” Vargas says. A 35-year educator in Hartford public schools, which have an overwhelmingly black and Latino student body, Vargas saw the Obama campaign as a historic opportunity for young people to see that anybody could grow up to become president. Latino for Obama’s goal was to counteract the presumed Latino support for Clinton, which he said was based in large part on endorsements from well-known Hispanics at the national level. Vargas says the Obama campaign in the state was short on all kinds of materials, and specifically on outreach to Latinos. One of the complaints by the Spanish media was that Hillary had been advertising for weeks, and the Obama campaign was putting nothing in Spanish.”

Activists went door to door with a localized flyer that focused on the themes of health care and immigration. New Haven alderman Joey Rodriguez says they also distributed a flyer featuring Obama’s story of how he came to embrace Christianity. We went out on Sundays and tried to flood as many churches as possible,” he says, from putting flyers on the windshields of cars to actually speaking to individuals walking out of church, to let them know where we stand as Hispanic leaders, and where we stand as far as endorsing a presidential candidate.”

While some of the organizers said it was easy to win over Latino voters to the Obama column, once they knew about his positions calling for health care and immigration reform, Rodriguez says otherwise. It wasn’t like every door I knocked on they were pro-Obama and I moved on,” he says. There were quite a few doors where residents said, I’m leaning toward Clinton.’ They wanted to support Clinton, but when I sat down with them as a person they trust, because they put their trust in me last election, they knew I was going to tell them straight-forward.”

Edwin Martinez is a case in point. Asked over e-mail why he switched to Obama, Martinez wrote, I think both Democratic candidates are the right candidates and I would love to see a combination of both leading this country. At first I was leaning towards Mrs. Clinton especially because of her health care plan. When Joey and I spoke he made me aware that Mr. Obama too has a health care plan and that Obama will fight to keep jobs in this country verses sending them overseas. Mr. Obama wants to give tax breaks to companies who create good jobs with decent wages right here in America. As a person in the manufacturing sector myself, I’ve seen first-hand jobs lost here because they were exported. It is a serious issue that deserves national attention. I know the change Mr. Obama promises would not be done overnight but I but believe it is time for change and he’s the person for the job.”

Yale political scientist Donald Green did the first studies back in the 1980s showing that people tend to respond better to get out the vote efforts when reached out to by local people who may have more in common with them than, say, hundreds of activists bused in from other states, as Howard Dean learned to his dismay in Iowa in 2004. Green says that this kind of localized outreach could be most effective in mobilizing the Latino vote. 

Oftentimes, Latino voters are left out of voter mobilization drives because they are considered low propensity voters, and campaigns want to talk to high propensity voters, they want to persuade people who are very likely to vote,” Green says. But what differentiates low propensity voters from high propensity voters is sometimes the attention that is paid to them over a series of elections.”

Ultimately, Obama won 53 percent of the Latino vote in Connecticut. For the microcosmic view, in the two most heavily (and neighboring) Latino wards of New Haven, voters went 180 to 159 for Obama in Rodriguez’s ward, and 190 to 135 for Clinton in a ward where little or no outreach was done, which is suggestive that the outreach by local leaders works.

According to a Feb. 15 blog post by ABC News pollster Gary Langer, exit polls indicate that Hispanics accounted for 14 percent of all votes cast in 2008 primaries up to that time (and helped Obama win Virginia a week after Connecticut). He added that in 2004 they accounted for a quarter of the 2004 Democratic primary turnout in Texas.

On Feb. 22, Obama was endorsed by the Change to Win Coalition, many of whose seven constituent members have significant Latino participation. These developments – along with the momentum his 11 consecutive wins since Super Tuesday provides – could help Obama score victories in Texas and Ohio.

Melinda Tuhus is an independent journalist with 25 years of experience in print and radio, including In These Times, The New York Times, Free Speech Radio News and public radio stations.
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