Hispanic voters are being courted with unprecedented vigor ahead of November's presidential election, amid rising prospects that they could be the decisive bloc in several key battleground states.
Barack Obama and John McCain both seem keenly aware of Hispanics' political growth spurt and of their potential to turn the election, opening offices in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, trying to win over advocacy groups, and targeting ads to Hispanics. Each is slated to talk to the largest Hispanic rights organization in the US, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), during its annual convention Sunday and Monday in San Diego.
"It's going to be a historic election ... because Latinos are responding in an unprecedented manner to take part," says Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns for NCLR. "You can't get to the White House anymore without building a relationship [with] and being concerned about the Latino community."
While the political attention is generating a mix of excitement and hope among Hispanics, many NCLR attendees wonder if anything will change as a result. Will it ultimately bring about immigration reform allowing for eventual citizenship for many illegal immigrants, put more Hispanics in high-level administration positions, help end discrimination, or ease the plight of hard-working families coping in tough economic times?
The level of expectation for movement on those issues, dear to the heart of a majority of the Latino community, is likely to determine whether Hispanics vote in larger-than-usual numbers – and for whom. So far, say many NCLR conference-goers from across the US, this election year is ushering in a new era of Hispanic involvement in the political process.
"This is a community that has matured and has the potential to bring out people who any elected official would be interested in," says Lori Saldaña, a member of California's state Assembly and an Obama delegate to next month's Democratic National Convention. Still, she says, the full potential of the Hispanic vote is not yet realized because many citizens aren't registered to vote. The community is starting to stir politically, she says, but has yet to fully wake up and be heard.
About 45.5 million Hispanics live in the United States, making up 15 percent of the population. But because many are not American citizens and cannot vote, they will amount to about 9 percent of eligible voters in November, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report from December. If earlier voting trends hold, Hispanics will comprise only 6.5 percent of overall turnout, the study found.
Despite the low number, this potential swing vote is concentrated in a few hotly contested states. Senator Obama last week was blunt about Hispanics' importance: "This election could well be decided by Latino voters." In the 2004 election, 40,000 Latinos registered to vote in New Mexico didn't turn out, and Democrat John Kerry lost the state by fewer than 6,000 votes.
A Hispanic surge for Obama could help deliver heavily Hispanic Western states to him, says Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle who researches voter behavior.
A survey of 800 Latino registered voters in 21 states in early June, which Mr. Barreto helped to conduct, found that 60 percent planned to vote for Obama, while Senator McCain garnered 23 percent. The rest were undecided. A June 24 Associated Press-Yahoo News poll showed Obama leading McCain among Hispanics, 47 to 22 percent, with 26 percent undecided.
Presidential candidates paid little heed to Latino voters until 2000, when George W. Bush spent more to reach them than did his Democratic challenger, Al Gore, Barreto says. That election was the "turning point when both campaigns and candidates did major and aggressive Latino outreach," he says. "Before, it was sporadic. It would happen here and there."
Immigration issues are not the most pressing ones for Hispanic voters, says Barreto. His survey put immigration third on their list of important issues, trailing jobs and the economy and the war in Iraq.
"It's the economy, it's healthcare. These are the issues we care about," says Reynaldo Casas, a public-relations director with the Spanish music channel MTV Tr3s during an NCLR panel on Hispanic youths, the media, and the coming vote.
On those issues, McCain can make strides with Hispanic voters, says Bob Pacheco, McCain's Latino coalition chairman for California. His message about supporting small-business owners and working to improve the economy resonates throughout the Hispanic community, which is hurting amid high gasoline prices and the housing crisis, he says. "One thing that is very important in the Latino community is jobs, having a small business, and taxes."
The Hispanic community is also religious – and often very traditional on social issues, says Mr. Pacheco. McCain's conservative message will win over this subset of Hispanics, he predicts. President Bush won about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.
Still, immigration policy is a concern to many Hispanics, who want the next administration to address it head on.
Assemblywoman Saldaña says McCain will have to "dance a very interesting two-step to serve both his ... Republican base and Latino families who are concerned about raids and deportations."
Last month, during separate appearances at a conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, McCain and Obama each pledged to make an overhaul of US immigration policy a priority. McCain said he wouldn't pursue the enforcement-only approach sought by hard-line conservatives, while Obama accused McCain of walking away from comprehensive immigration reform.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.