Latinos: Big Election Winners

Record turnout of first-generation Latin American immigrants could be a major factor in deciding the election

By Andres Oppenheimer
Published on LatinoLA: November 1, 2004

Latinos: Big Election Winners

Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's election, there is a good chance that one of the big winners will be the growing bloc of Latin American immigrant voters.

If the election turns out to be as close as it looks today, an expected record turnout of first-generation Latin American immigrants could be a major factor in deciding the election, and would significantly boost the political clout of this country's 39 million Latinos in both domestic and foreign affairs.

Granted, a lot of the talk about the growing importance of the Latino vote in the past has been speculation. But if you look at the money spent by President Bush and Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry on Spanish-language media, there is little question that they consider it critical.

The Bush and Kerry campaigns, and their respective support groups, have spent $13 million on Spanish-language media in this election, more than three times the $4 million that campaigns spent in the 2000 election, according to a study by the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.

The bulk of these funds went to Spanish-language television ads, reaching many first-generation Latin American immigrants. About 50 percent of the nation's Latino voters were born in Latin America or Puerto Rico, and half of them have registered to vote since 1990, pollsters say.

"Money talks. When the campaigns put money on the table, you know that they're serious," said Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic Party pollster specializing in the U.S. Latino electorate. "There has been an unprecedented electoral battle for Hispanic immigrants who watch Spanish-language television."

In addition, both candidates have spent an unprecedented amount of time giving interviews to Latino media, ranging from Univision's Sabado Gigante entertainment show to small circulation weeklies. Kerry has given 24 exclusive interviews to Hispanic media, including the weeklies Al Dia of Philadelphia, and Gente of Minnesota, his campaign says.

Among the reasons for the sudden focus on Latin American immigrants:

** Election experts are predicting a record turnout of about 7.5 million Latino voters nationwide, or more than 6 percent of the nation's vote. It is a massive figure if you consider that the polls show a virtual tie between the two candidates. By comparison, about 5.9 million Hispanics voted in 2000.

** Pollsters say a significant number of Hispanic voters are undecided, or willing to support presidential and congressional candidates of either party.

For instance, a majority of Central Florida Hispanic voters supported Democratic candidate Al Gore in 2000, and Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002. Because of this, Republican and Democratic strategists believe a sizable part of the Latino vote is up for grabs.

** There is a huge concentration of Latino voters in key battleground states. In the 2000 election, Bush won Florida by 537 votes, and Gore won New Mexico by 366 votes.

"How much influence the political pundits assign to Latino voters will depend upon just how close the vote is in Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado," said Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project. "If it's a close race and the winning candidate has a wide margin of victory among Hispanic voters, it will be seen as the critical component in his victory."

If the Latino vote turns out to decide this election, Latin American immigrants will most likely increase their clout in Washington, and will be increasingly courted by their native Latin American countries.

According to a Zogby International poll, 91 percent of U.S. Latino voters consider U.S. policy toward Latin America a "very important" or "somewhat important" factor in their voting decisions.

"For any group that has had a significant (electoral) impact, the next logical step is to turn that power into a lobbying power," said John Zogby, president of Zogby International. "This could be the last election where Latin America policy is ignored."

I agree. After Tuesday's election, it will be interesting to see not only who wins, but with whose votes he wins. If the Latino vote turns out to be as critical as many predict, it is bound to have a growing impact on Washington's domestic and foreign policies.

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