Colorado Latinos could swing state blue for Obama

A pro-Latino voter plackard reads 'Our voice is our vote, we are the political force.' (Photo/Erin Rosa)
A pro-Latino voter plackard reads 'Our voice is our vote, we are the political force.' (Photo/Erin Rosa)

Latinos — who could comprise more than 10 percent of the vote in Colorado alone this year — could steer traditionally conservative battleground states to blue on the electoral map in 2008, and though John McCain’s campaign has in recent weeks reached out to Hispanics, the popular wisdom is that Barack Obama has their support nailed.

A recent Quinnipiac University/Wall Street Journal poll shows the democratic Illinois Senator leading McCain in Colorado among Latino voters 68 percent to 26 percent. (Overall, last week’s poll of the more than 1,400 likely voters in Colorado showed 49 percent preferred Obama, compared with 45 percent who said they favored McCain.)

John McCain at a recent Denver town hall forum. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
John McCain at a recent Denver town hall forum. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

As detailed in The Colorado Independent last week, McCain has courted the Hispanic vote in states with heavily Hispanic demographics like Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida. He’s done that in part by resurrecting support for comprehensive — and controversial — immigration reform, which includes a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. It was a position McCain stood firm on in 2007 when he and Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy tried to enact legislation to secure America’s border while offering amnesty to immigrants who already in the United States.

The attempt was shunned by the GOP’s conservative base, and McCain was nearly derailed from his then-unpopular presidential campaign. Able to keep on the tracks through the primaries, he shifted his talk to the importance of securing America’s borders, a popular position among conservatives, and largely refrained from publicly endorsing the pathway to citizenship he caught flack on a year before.

With the race polling close today though, McCain has regained his voice talking up a pathway to citizenship in southwest battleground states. Some believe it is an attempt to supercharge the Latino vote, but it might not be enough.

A Pew Hispanic Center survey, released last month by the nonpartisan research group, shed new light on an old problem for Republicans and put wind in Obama’s sails.

Indeed, the report shows McCain struggling to match Obama’s support among registered Latino voters — with nearly 55 percent of respondents saying Obama is the better candidate compared to just 11 percent feeling the same of McCain.

In Colorado, at least one political observer predicts fully 65 to 68 percent of the Latino vote will go to the Democrat — “no matter what Barack Obama and John McCain do or say.”

“What’s most likely going to happen is the Latinos are going to vote as they have traditionally in the past which is primarily for the Democrats,” said Anna Sampaio a political science professor at the University of Colorado-Denver who focuses on Latino issues in politics.

Fighting for every vote
That doesn’t mean both campaigns aren’t fighting for the Latino vote. McCain has invested in producing campaign ads in Spanish and outreach campaigns to sign up new voters.

Barack Obama speaks to a crowd in Colorado. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
Barack Obama speaks to a crowd in Colorado. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

Obama has also advertised on Hispanic radio and television stations, and has opened offices in heavily Hispanic Colorado areas including in North Denver, in Greeley and in Pueblo. In addition, Obama’s Colorado operation has formed a Latino Council headed by former Denver Mayor Federico Peña and has implemented a twice weekly phone bank that reaches out to Hispanic voters.

“Colorado can make a difference in this presidential [race] and with the Hispanic vote being at 10 percent it could really swing the vote here,” said Manolo Gonzalez-Estay, the Latino outreach director for Colorado for Obama. “People in the Latino population are excited. They believe there is an opportunity to see change and a new direction this year.”

Calls for comment to McCain’s Colorado operation were not returned by deadline.

Obama’s success though is being questioned by some Latinos in Colorado. During a recent campaign stop in heavily-Hispanic Pueblo, Obama didn’t steer from his normal stump speech to talk about Latino issues — and he mispronounced the name of Colorado state Sen. Abel Tapia, who is from Pueblo. In an op-ed that ran in the Pueblo Chieftain afterward, Juan Espinosa, a Denver resident who writes in the Chieftain occasionally, said he was disappointed Obama didn’t use the stop to woo the Hispanic vote.

Both campaigns are fighting for good reason. The number of Latino voters in the United States is increasing at a faster rate than almost every voting demographic in the country. During the 1988 presidential election, Hispanics accounted for 3.7 million votes. By 2004, that number had grown to 7.5 million.

In Colorado, the 2004 election attracted a record number of Hispanic voters who ultimately accounted for 8 percent of the statewide vote. Estimates this year by both parties say 2008 could be the first time Latino voters in Colorado make up more than 10 percent of the state’s ballots.

It’s the issues stupid
Going after Latinos has not been easy though. Each campaign has similar problems trying to entice Hispanic voters to their camp — they aren’t talking about issues that mean the most. Some believe immigration reform is the No. 1 issue on the minds of Colorado’s Latino voters, but that’s not exactly so. In fact, immigration isn’t even in the top 3 important issues, Sampaio, the UCD professor said.

“The data that I have seen consistently suggests that Latino concerns are similar to those of white voters,” Sampaio said. “Education tends to be the issue that is at the top of the list, with the economy and the war in Iraq following it up. Of course immigration is important, but its not the top issue Latino voters are looking at. There really isn’t a focus on immigration; that is more of a myth than a reality.”

Even if immigration were the most important issue for Latino voters, Sampaio noted, chances are both campaigns would probably still ignore it.

“Immigration is a political football that is dangerous for both candidates,” she said. “For McCain, it’s difficult to manage because he strongly went against his own party on the issue… and I don’t see him getting any real advantage by brining it back into the debate. Similarly with Obama, he has to carefully manage the Democrats on the issue, some of who are hard core security people who don’t want to see legalization steps taken. This is not an issue the benefits either side really.”

Dusti Gurule, the executive director of the Latina Initiative in Colorado, points out that Latinos in Colorado, as they have nationally, have shifted their view of immigration in part because they’ve realized that attacks on Latino immigrants often leads to widespread profiling.

“Also, many of the local ‘fixes’ to the issue tend to create more problems for low income folks,” she said.

As for how important the Latino vote in Colorado will be for both campaigns, only time time will tell… 30 days to be exact.

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