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Latinos: Ready to vote for Obama?

08.28.08 | 2 Comments

Español aquíObama T-shirt in New Orleans
“Obama-mania” in New Orleans.

One of the key questions in this election -and for this blog- is whether Latinos are willing to vote for a black presidential candidate. Relationships between the two minorities have not always been great and in more than one opportunity they’ve seen each other as competitors, especially in the labor market.

The sense I got from talking to Latinos in different states -from New York to Texas- is that there are many Latinos who are enthusiastic about Barack Obama’s message of hope. But there’s also a lot of them who will not vote for him, either because of that adversarial relationship or simply because they don’t see him as a good candidate

I know, I know… nothing to write home about.

But this is part of what I intended to show from the beginning of this journalistic roadtrip: Latinos are very diverse bunch, there are those who vote and those who don’t, the progressives and the conservatives. Politicians and analysts tend to speak about the Latino vote as if it was just one bloc, but there’s huge diversity within this demographic.

Juan Carlos Alonso, a barman from Puebla, Mexico, told me in Savannah that African American people are lazy and that’s why he doesn’t want Obama to win. Alonso is an example of that diversity, but -beware- he is not an extreme case. As I told Francisco Aravena on an on-air interview for Chile’s Duna radio, it’s quite common among some latinos to speak of blacks in those terms. It’s just not that common for them to expose these feelings in front of a journalist.

Aside the fact that generalizations like this one are very unfair, what Alonso’s words point to is the fact that some Latinos resist the idea of voting for a black politician. In February, longtime Dallas Hispanic activist Adelfa Callejo brought this issue to national attention when she said that Obama had a problem in that he is black. How much will this diminish Latino support for Obama?

My partial vision, based on the conversations I had on the road, is that a majority of Latinos prefer the Democratic candidate.

Marcia Espínola, community activist in Siler City, NC, told me about Obama and John McCain’s appearances at the National Council of La Raza annual convention in San Diego in July. “Everyone was for Obama, screaming, clapping their hands. There was a huge line to see him, and inside people were on top of the tables,” she said. “When McCain spoke, you could hear the crickets.”

Espínola added she doesn’t see a reluctance to vote for a black person among Hispanics in her area.

“I don’t think Obama’s skin color matters, it’s more about how convincing he can be,” told me Elvira, a Mexican woman from Guanajuato who owns a supermarket in Garden City outside Savannah (and declined to provide her last name.) “There’s difficult relationships between all the races. Voting for a white man or a black man is the same thing, after all.”

More than whether they will vote for a black man, I think the main question here is whether big numbers of Hispanics will vote at all on Nov. 4. “The problem is people don’t go out to vote,” said Juvencio Rocha Peralta, community leader in rural Eastern North Carolina. Also Teresita Jacinto, of Mexicans Without Borders in Northern Virginia, told me: “There’s not a lot of faith in the democratic system.”

So it looks like getting out the vote will be crucial in this elections. My friends at Feet In 2 Worlds reported yesterday that Obama is planning to announce a massive voter registration campaign during his acceptance speech tonight.

Puerto Rican-New Yorker political analyst Angelo Falcon, who heads the National Institute for Latino Policy, said yesterday in the organization’s latest newsletter:

Among those who follow the Latino vote professionally, the current consensus and evidence points to the fact that Obama starts off with at least 60 percent of the Latino vote in November. The big question is not whether Latinos will vote for Obama, but how many will — the key will be Latino turnout. Whether the Latino vote will be decisive depends on how close this election will be, not only nationally but in certain battleground states where Latinos are a significant presence, such as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, as well as in Florida where the Latino electorate has undergone some interesting changes favoring the Democrats.

On that count, the evidence I collected in talking to people who are not activists shows that Obama has to make a big effort to ensure a large Latino turnout.

Mario Córdoba and his family, in Kinston, North Carolina, are an example of the people Democrats need to energize. The whole family are American citizens, born on U.S. soil, but what Mario told me is that none of them are planning on voting in November.

Sanjuana Moreno, in Smithville, Texas, is another, similar case. She likes Obama more than McCain… but she doesn’t intend to vote because she feels it makes no difference whether she participates or not. This, coming from a member of a demographic Obama has put high hopes on: youngsters who usually don’t vote.

At the end of the day, the most energized voter I encountered had already decided in favor of McCain. It was Aida Hernandez of New Orleans, to whom I spoke on the phone while visiting her niece’s office at the local Telemundo station. I’m not trying to say that this shows a trend, but what Hernandez had to say was interesting: to her, Obama is less trustworthy than McCain in matters of national security and immigration (no less.)

Also Ernesto Schweikert III, the station’s owner, said he was voting for the Republican. “McCain will win for sure,” he assured me.

In fact, as El Rayo Blanco took us South along the East Coast, no interviewee had mentioned McCain unprompted. As we drove farther into the Deep South, the senator from Arizona started popping up in conversations with Latinos more often.

And this underlines my argument: Latino voters are not a uniform bloc but a very diverse electorate. The campaigns will need a big effort -and actual proposals, in the case of Obama especially- to convince them of going out and voting on Nov. 4.

Permanent link: http://diegograglia.net/newyorktomexico/?p=53

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