I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
Swinging for Latinos
ALBUQUERQUE—As New Mexico emerges as a key swing state in the 2008 elections, the two parties are increasingly focusing on the state’s Latino electorate as a key demographic.
Nationwide, Barack Obama has nearly a 3-to-1 advantage over John McCain among Latino voters, according to a poll released June 16. The telephone poll of Latino voters conducted by Pacific Market Research in collaboration with University of Washington political scientists found that 60 percent planned to vote for Obama, 23 percent for McCain and 16 percent were undecided. The researchers combined New Mexico data with other southwestern "battleground" states and found Obama leading McCain in those states 57 percent to 26 percent.
During a May 30 foreign press briefing, Susan Minushkin, Deputy Director of the Pew Hispanic Center, described the enormous growth as well as the increasing dispersion of the Latino community across the nation, but also explained that Hispanic eligible voters are concentrated in a few select states, giving Hispanics more influence in presidential elections due to their ability to influence key state races.
New Mexico has the largest rate of eligible voters who are Hispanic of any state: 38 percent. California and Texas have 25 and 23 percent, respectively. In seven other states, Hispanics constitute between 11 and 20 percent of eligible voters: Florida, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado.
Of these states, the so-called "battleground" states are New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, and possibly Arizona.
Given the statistics and the winner-take-all nature of the electoral college, the significance of Latino voters in New Mexico becomes apparent.
But in New Mexico, Obama can’t take the Latino vote for granted.
“It’s not unusual for Democrats to win big statewide with Latinos in New Mexico, with people like Jeff Bingaman, Bill Richardson, or Bruce King in the past getting 85 percent of the Latino vote,” Brian Sanderoff, of Albuquerque’s Research and Polling Inc., told the Independent. Hispanics coalesced with the Democratic party beginning with the New Deal in the 1930s, Sanderoff explained, and then in the 1960s John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson reinforced Hispanic support within the Democratic coalition.
But given the size of the Latino voting population, and the historic degree to which they usually vote Democrat, just picking off a few percentage points may be all the Republicans need in a tight election. They don’t need to win the Latino vote, they just need to reduce the size of it that goes to the Democrats in order to win.
“So they’re a very important part of the Democratic coalition in terms of winning,” Sanderoff continued, “but, things have been changing when it comes to presidential contests. George Bush received about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally in 2004, and maybe 37 percent in New Mexico based on polling.”
UNM Political Science Professor Christine Sierra, though, said that despite the 2004 outcome, the 2006 mid-term election results nationwide suggest that Hispanics may be stepping back from the Republican party. And while there was no statewide poll to show how New Mexico Hispanics voted two years ago, she told the Independent, the fact that Democrat Patricia Madrid did so well against Heather Wilson in the First Congressional District may show that reversal playing out here as well.
The big question both Sierra and Sanderoff say the 2008 election may answer is whether a substantial minority of Hispanic voters realigned themselves as Republicans in 2004. Was it a flash in the pan or the beginning of a long relationship?
The Pew Hispanic Center surveyed the issues in November 2007 and found that education, health care and the economy were the three main Hispanic issues nationwide. Year after year, Minushkin said, they find this same ranking.
According to Sanderoff, these issues are tops for Latinos in New Mexico as well. And in these areas they lean heavily toward the Democrats.
But Latinos are also quite diverse with complex political positions, often tilting to the right on issues such as abortion and marriage. How these factors play out presents a political tightrope in New Mexico and across the country.
In 2004, a mix of factors helped Bush pull more Latino voters to the Republicans, Sanderoff said. Latinos had a hard time relating to John Kerry and Bush is seen as a fellow Westerner. Plus, many Latinos are social conservatives. The Republican party was most successful in more rural, socially conservative Latino communities, Sanderoff continued:
The road to success for Republicans with Latinos has been through our rural areas. The larger urban areas or towns, such as Santa Fe and Taos in the north, have remained with the Democrats. But Republicans have found it easier to appeal to rural socially conservative Latinos in places like San Miquel, Mora, Rio Arriba, and Grants, for instance. Rural, small town Latinos are economic liberals at the same time they’re socially conservative. The support in 2004 was still there for Kerry, but it was soft, and turn-out was low in those areas. Add in that soft showing with how other constituencies voted and you saw Bush coming out ahead.
While not in the top tier of important issues to Hispanic voters, Minushkin says, immigration has emerged over the past few years as much more important. This is reflected in the prominent role it plays in the efforts of Barack Obama and John McCain to court Latino voters.
In New Mexico, both Sanderoff and Sierra told the Independent that immigration "isn’t an issue" for voters in New Mexico, until it’s "made into one."
The New Mexico Hispanic leadership, Sierra noted, converges to show solidarity and protection of their perceived cultural group broadly when anti-immigrant policies are promoted. Rachel Lazar, Director of the Albuquerque immigrants rights organization El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, agrees, but says its a sentiment shared widely within the state, not just among Hispanic leadership circles.
New Mexico has some of the most comprehensive anti-discrimination policies in the nation when it comes to immigrants, Lazar said, which reflects broad-based support for the rights of immigrants, a huge majority of which in New Mexico are of Mexican origin. "We’re seen as a model state by many in terms of our policies," Lazar said, "which allow drivers licenses and access to higher education for young people without requiring proof of citizenship. Plus many municipalities in the state have passed immigrant-friendly resolutions and laws that bar authorities from being required to check a person’s citizenship status."
For this reason, John McCain’s reversal on immigration, could pose a problem for his chances of winning the state. Along with Edward Kennedy, McCain co-sponsored an unsuccessful Senate immigration bill in 2005 that made a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers its central plank. That bill was subject to intense debate and he was assailed by many Republicans for wanting to grant what they termed "amnesty" to those in the states without proper documentation. During the presidential primary he shifted his position on immigration to a focus on border security, going so far as to say that if the bill he sponsored before came before the Senate today that he wouldn’t vote for it.
The New Democrat Network (NDN), a national Democrat think tank, says in their May 2008 report Hispanics Rising II that the immigration debate has "introduced a new dynamic" in the Hispanic electorate since 2004. According to their analysis, the Republican party has rejected the "enlightened approach to Hispanics" of the Bush family in favor of an anti-immigrant agenda.
In their report, they detail the efforts made by Republicans to make inroads with Hispanics beginning with the 2000 presidential election. Then, in 2005 the GOP shifted toward an anti-immigrant position, leading to massive pro-immigration marches in the Spring of 2006 and sparking a huge national battle over immigration reform legislation. In fact, the pro-immigration march in Albuquerque that year, which was led by El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, was the largest march ever seen in the city.
The NDN analysts posit that this shift led to a Hispanic voter defection from the Republicans in the 2006 mid-term elections, a trend that they say is continuing in 2008 with Hispanics turning out in record numbers during the Democratic primary.
The NDN argument is bolstered by political analysis on the right. Richard Nadler of the America’s Majority Foundation looks at the consequences for Republican politicians who take a hard line on immigration in areas with high percentages of Hispanic voters, in a study called Border Wars. He characterizes Republicans as holding either an "enforcement first" position, which is a hard line deportation approach to undocumented workers, or a "comprehensive immigration reform" position, which advocates for a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.
In the report, Nadler conducts a "Hispanic Precinct Study" along the U.S./Mexico border, including two of New Mexico’s congressional races in 2006. He charts the numbers from Hispanic majority precincts, comparing how Republicans did based on their immigration positions and demonstrates that enforcement-first positions were disastrous for Republicans in largely Hispanic precincts.
By contrast, New Mexico’s two Republican congresspeople, Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce, combined strong border security positions with advocacy for guest worker programs and path to citizenship proposals. Wilson won re-election in 2006, narrowly. Nadler says immigration wasn’t an issue in CD1 but that had it been made into one by emphasizing an enforcement first approach, she probably would have lost the closely fought race. In CD2, Pearce actually increased the Hispanic vote-share.
Nadler bluntly warns Republicans about hard line immigration positions:
Any policy that induces mass fear in illegal aliens will induce mass anger in legal aliens…The implicit moral hazard associated with decades of non-enforcement of immigration laws becomes explicit with enforcement only. Ties of family, culture, and a shared media will communicate the fears of the group directly threatened – the illegals—to other Latinos who are not. The profiling inevitable with the enforcement of previously flouted immigration laws will intensify the attendant emotions. To the authorities, every Latino becomes a potential criminal. To Latinos, every interaction with the authorities becomes, or symbolizes, an existential threat.
…Participants in the immigration debate needn’t like this conclusion. But they had better understand it.
He concludes that if the McCain campaign takes an "enforcement first" stance while Democrats focus turn-out efforts in high Latino electorate battleground states, that the Democrats will win those states through increased Hispanic vote-share. He includes New Mexico in this analysis.
In this regard, as an issue that has joined the political mix in a big way, 2008 may see immigration trump the more socially conservative positions of Latino voters when they weigh the big picture at the ballot box.