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In Nevada, a first test of Latinos' leanings in '08 race

The immigration debate has rattled many and may tip them toward the Democrats. But which one?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 17, 2008

Precaucus debate: Barack Obama (l.), Hillary Rodham Clinton, and John Edwards squared off Tuesday in Las Vegas.

Steve Marcus/Reuters

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Las Vegas

– Nostalgia drove Armando Kihuen, a Latino immigrant, to come hear former President Bill Clinton stump for his wife in the days before the Nevada caucuses.

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"During the Clinton administration everyone was happy economically and peacefully living in this country," says Mr. Kihuen, who came to the US as a farm laborer in 1984 and now teaches middle-school science. "The Latinos had peace of mind [and] they remember that."

It's a common refrain here among Latinos, who are rattled by the rhetoric in the national immigration debate. They now have an opportunity to respond in large numbers with their votes, starting with Saturday's contest in Nevada.

Latino nostalgia for a less rancorous, more prosperous time benefits Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic nomination race and could also hurt Republican chances of winning the general election in November, say experts.

"What the US is experiencing in 2008 is not really that different than what California experienced in 1994 to 1997, which is a highly polarized environment around Latinos and immigration – and Latinos responded," says Gary Segura, a political scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

In California, then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) pushed an anti-immigration measure that sparked a Latino backlash at the polls against the GOP. Most of the Republican presidential hopefuls talk tough on illegal immigration, emphasizing border security and "no amnesty" over paths to citizenship and access to some government services. "The GOP presidential field is picking up where Pete Wilson left off," says Dr. Segura.

Until 2006, Republicans under President Bush were eroding Democrats' edge among Hispanic voters. Now some 57 percent of Hispanic registered voters call themselves Democrats or lean that way, while only 23 percent break Republican – a gap not seen since 1999, according to a report last month by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.

Hispanics could be a key swing vote in November because they are a large share of eligible voters in New Mexico (37 percent), Florida (14 percent), Colorado (12 percent), and Nevada (12 percent) – states President Bush won by fewer than five percentage points in '04, the report notes.

But it's not certain that Hispanic voters, who tend to be younger and less politically engaged, will turn out in force in Nevada or elsewhere. Experts and pollsters are generally shying away from any forecasts about the unprecedented caucuses here.

Both Democratic frontrunners are airing Spanish-language ads. The Clinton camp boasts a long list of Latino endorsements, most recently Cesar Chavez's brother. And Mrs. Clinton has spent more time in Hispanic neighborhoods here, says Eddie Escobedo, publisher of El Mundo, a local newspaper endorsing Clinton.

"Hillary Clinton has been in my neighborhood talking to the head of households of different homes. She has been at the Mexican restaurant having a roundtable," says Mr. Escobedo. "[Sen. Barack] Obama has not gone out to the Latinos."

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