Latino Political Power Awakens

Last week's primary in California showed that Latinos are more active, but the impact is unclear.

California's primary election last week put to rest 20 years of talk about the potential political power of the nation's fast-growing Latino population.

Forget potential. It's here.

Yet like most emerging social forces, it has not arrived tied in a bow. Instead, the California vote showed Latino power to be affecting the political process more than the results and oddly enough, it remains surprisingly unpredictable on issues most central to that community.

The unpredictability factor was starkly evident in the state's overwhelming rejection of its bilingual education program.

The surprise for months leading up to the election was the solid 60 percent-plus majority of Latinos favoring the initiative. It was counterintuitive for many who expected Latinos to see the measure, as its critics did, as a thinly disguised attack on the immigrant community. Proponents of the initiative pointed to Latino support as evidence those suspicions were unfounded and the implicit question for many undecided non-Latino voters was why fight to save bilingual education if a prime beneficiary like the Latino community was eager to see it dismantled.

The next surprise came at the polls when by a 2-to-1 margin, Latinos rejected the initiative, breaking ranks with the electorate as a whole and uncovering a racial divide over the issue that never reared its head during the campaign.

The outcome, though stunning, fit a pattern.

On two other of California's most potent social-policy changes this decade - a 1994 ballot initiative denying social services to illegal immigrants and a 1996 measure ending racial preferences in state employment and education - Latinos also were supportive at the outset, according to polls, but decidedly against on election day.

The gulf between early opinion polls of likely voters and what takes place in the ballot booth is of more than academic interest, say experts on the Latino vote.

"It has serious consequences. It misleads the American public. It sets up an artificial gap between Latino leaders and the rank and file. And it turns out there is no gap. It also has a demobilizing effect and can dissuade some from voting," says Harry Pachon, president of the Thomas Rivera Policy Institute in southern California.

Mr. Pachon says opinion polls may start with an inaccurate reading by extrapolating from too small samples of Latinos and not conducting enough interviews in Spanish. In addition, he explains, because the Latino voting population is largely working class and comprises many first-time voters, the community often does not focus on key issues until very late in the political process. At that point they take their cue heavily from civic and political leaders, he says.

Pollster Mark DiCamillo of the Field Institute points out that their polls on bilingual education, illegal immigrants, and affirmative action have all shown movement away from support in the weeks ahead of voting on those measures. Still, he acknowledges "the magnitude of change is unique to the Latino community. As a group, they must come to a decision very late in the process."

Mr. DiCamillo adds that the seeming unpredictability of the Latino vote on high-profile social issues is not matched in terms of candidate preferences. There, early poll readings usually accurately reflect the actual outcome.

California is home to more than a third of the nation's Latino population, so that community's electoral clout is most pronounced here. Exit polls from last week's primary show that Latinos share of the votes cast was at an all time high - about 12 percent. That's nearly double what it was in 1990.

In some ways, the prominence of social-policy ballot initiatives in the past four years has energized the Latino electorate, say analysts. The measures were perceived by many as attacks on the Latino community. And their approval by the electorate as a whole "is having the effect of encouraging people to get involved and helping them understand the value of their vote," says Nativo Lopez of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, based in Orange County, Calif.

Candidates have gotten the message. Though multimillionaire gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi lost his bid for the Democratic nomination, his early courting of Latinos with Spanish-language advertising and attention to Latino leaders was a milestone. "To have a mainstream candidate court the Latino community so early ... has in many ways legitimized the Latino vote," says Guillermo Rodriguez of the Latino Issues Forum in San Francisco.

The gubernatorial candidates, as a group, also spent a record sum on advertising in Spanish-language media and held the state's first debate in Spanish.

In November, Latinos will compete for four state offices: lieutenant governor, controller, insurance commissioner, and superintendent of public instruction. A victory in any of those races would put a Latino in a statewide office for the first time this century.

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