Battle brews for Florida’s Hispanic voters

Both parties are gearing up to to wage a fierce battle for the state’s Hispanic vote. For Democrats, the president’s reelection may ride on their success.

By Alex Leary (Miami Herald)

It’s 3:01 a.m. and the woman in the TV ad wakes, her face a portrait of worry. She rolls over in bed as thunder crashes outside. The screen flashes to her family photograph, then President Barack Obama.

“ Debo estar preocupada acerca de nuestros trabajos, nuestro hogar,” she narrates in Spanish. “I’m worried, I guess,” goes the English version of the same ad. “About our jobs, our home.”

The woman tells how she voted for Obama “because he spoke beautifully. But since then, things have gone from bad to much worse.”

The ominous looking ad airing in Tampa, Miami and Orlando last month marked the opening shot in what will be a fierce battle for Florida’s Hispanic voters, an exploding force that could determine whether Obama gets re-elected.

Less than a week later, the Democratic National Committee scrambled to put its Spanish-language spot up in Florida, warning viewers about “ads that pretend to care about our children” while condemning Republicans for trying to change Medicare and protect tax cuts for the rich.

And that was quickly followed by ads on Spanish-language radio in Miami, Orlando and Tampa that were paid for by the Republican National Committee and charged Obama with failing to improve the economy while growing the debt.

The breathless dash comes well before the 2012 election, but there is no time to wait.

Hispanics are the country’s fastest-growing demographic, and Republicans and Democrats are jumping in to harness the vast potential. Florida says it all: Hispanic voters are predicted to top 1.6 million in 2012, a 34 percent increase in four years.

“The Hispanic vote is absolutely up for grabs and few places is that more true than Florida,” said Evan Bacalao, senior director of civic engagement for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which projects Hispanics will make up about 18 percent of the overall vote in the state.

Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote nationwide in 2008 and captured 57 percent in Florida, where Hispanics have typically favored Republicans. “Sí, se puede,” Obama shouted to a crowd of 600 who showed up to hear him in Kissimmee that year. “Yes, we can.”

Today there are about 138,000 more registered Hispanic Democrats than Republicans in Florida, with younger Cubans and Puerto Ricans making up a large share of the growth. (A substantial amount, 31 percent, of Hispanic voters are independent, more than any ethnic or racial group.)

But the GOP got the Hispanic vote in 2010, even as now-Gov. Rick Scott campaigned for tough immigration laws that many Hispanics found offensive. Democrats appeared to be taking past success for granted, only getting serious about outreach late in the campaign.

Now Republicans say the poor economy will drive even more Republicans to their side.

“It’s clear this president’s failed economic policies have Hispanic voters looking for a change in direction,” said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, noting that the unemployment rate is higher for Latinos than other Americans, 11 percent vs. 9 percent.

His counterpart at the Democratic National Committee, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of South Florida, said that the Republican agenda is out of step with the middle class and pointed to efforts the Obama administration has taken to extend health insurance to legal immigrant children, provide more Pell Grants to Hispanic students and cut taxes for families.

She said the DNC TV ad — which ran in Miami, Orlando and Tampa as well as Denver, Reno, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and Washington, D.C. — spoke volumes because it was the party’s first of the 2012 election cycle and done in Spanish.

“It’s a clear signal that we know the Hispanic community has grown across this country and our commitment is to reach voters in every nook and cranny of the nation,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Hispanics are the country’s fastest-growing minority group, climbing to 50.5 million in 2010 from 35.3 million in 2000, according to the Census. The number of eligible voters also increased to 21.3 million from 13.2 million.

But a Pew Hispanic Center study showed that many Latinos stay away from the polls. In 2010, 31 percent of eligible Hispanic voters cast ballots, while nearly half of white voters did as well as 44 percent of black voters.

That makes voter outreach critical. Whichever party can motivate Hispanics may win the White House.

Obama has already moved aggressively in Florida, which he barely won in 2008 and now is an even bigger prize with 29 electoral college votes. Organizers are going door to door in Hispanic neighborhoods, staffing Spanish-language phone banks and reaching out to community leaders. Last month, organizers fanned out at a Puerto Rican parade in Orlando.

“It’s a personal connection with people and it gives them someone to talk to. Each person has issues that are important to themselves,” said Rafael Serrano, 34, an organizer in Tampa. “The reception that we’ve had so far has been really positive.”

Volunteers emphasize efforts to help the middle class and the president’s call for immigration reform, including passage of the DREAM Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for some high-achieving children of illegal immigrants.

In June, Obama visited Puerto Rico, a sign he was courting the burgeoning population of transplants who live in the coveted I-4 corridor of Central Florida. Hispanics there have accounted for much of the state’s population growth in the past decade and are demanding more political power. Advocates are pressing state lawmakers who are redrawing congressional districts to carve out one of two new seats for a Hispanic.

But for all the energy surrounding Obama’s effort, he is facing distinct challenges. The comprehensive immigration reform he promised in 2008 has not happened. The DREAM Act has sputtered under opposition from Republicans.

Then there is the universal voter worry: The economy.

Republicans think unemployment, home foreclosures and lagging pay is where Obama is most vulnerable. The TV ad that played last month in Florida dwelled on that worry, and targeted Hispanics who supported the president in 2008.

“That support is a mile wide and inch deep,” said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for Crossroads GPS, a third-party expenditure group run by Karl Rove. Rove helped engineer President George W. Bush’s victories in 2000 and 2004, which drew considerable Hispanic support.

The GOP has its own problems. The intense immigration debate of recent years has stirred hard feelings among Hispanics. Republicans fought the new health care law, which was to make it easier for working families to afford care. And though Republicans are promising aggressive outreach, none of the presidential candidates has done much so far.

“We have a lot of work to do,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the GOP presidential nominee in 2008 who was attacked within his party for supporting a bipartisan plan to create a way to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.

Priebus, the RNC chairman, asserted that the immigration issue would not hurt the party “one bit” even though polls show it is a major issue for Hispanic voters and the lack of federal reform has created state laws that have further inflamed matters.

Republicans say they can win over Hispanics by stressing common pro-family, pro-life views and focusing on jobs and taxes and national security.

“I think we do the debate a great service by making sure it’s not just about immigration but also about the broader issues facing the country because Hispanic and Latino voters care equally about those issues as well,’’ said Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty.

The party is also investing in Hispanic candidates and drawing attention to its new stars, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and two Hispanic governors, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico.

Rubio said he will help with the recruitment but stressed the appeal must go beyond one’s surname and cautioned against treating Hispanics as a monolithic group.

“We have to earn their vote,” he said. “You don’t earn it through mariachi bands or Spanish-language television or even promoting candidates of Hispanic descent. You do it by having policies that speak to the real hopes, the real dreams of real people.”


Categories: NGLC Conference

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