The Battle for the Latino Vote

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Damian Dovarganes / AP

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama addresses supporters at a Latino town hall meeting.

Most mornings Thelma Salazar, 70, meets her friends at the Cesar E. Chavez Community Center nestled in a garden next to the I-71 freeway less than a mile from Long Beach's busy industrial ports. Whether playing cards or eating meals, they rarely discuss politics. But on the few occasions that they do, most of the group of Latina retirees murmur their support of Hillary Clinton, though many like that "young boy, what's his name? Barack Obama?"

That slight level of curiosity is encouraging for Obama. But there's no denying that the Illinois Senator has his work cut out for him in trying to win over the California Latino community in places like Long Beach, home of the 37th Congressional District, where Latinos make up 43% of the population. Not only does the former First Lady have built-in name recognition, she represents an era of prosperity that many of these women would like to see returned. "Not to mention, I like to elect the first woman President," Salazar, a retired dental assistant, said with a smile.

Still, Clinton can't take the Latino vote, which could make up as much as a quarter of the vote on primary day, for granted. Although the 37th has a large Latino population, it consistently elects African-Americans, as it did five months ago in a special election to replace Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald after her unexpected death. Part of that can be attributed to its politically active black population, which makes up 25%, as well as the fact that many Latinos are not citizens or are not registered to vote — only 21% voted in August.

Congresswoman Laura Richardson's victory in the district's August special election bodes well for Obama, who holds a commanding lead in polls of likely California black voters, who account for just around 10% of the total Democratic electorate. Her story even has shades of Obama in it. In the space of a year she went from the Long Beach City Council to the State Assembly to the U.S. Congress. The child of a white mother and black father, Richardson, 45, won the district's special election with 67% of the vote after edging past State Senator Jenny Oropeza, a Latina, in the primary. Political observers watched the race closely as an indicator of the growing power of the Latino vote in California. Though both Richardson and Oropeza disavowed racial overtones in the primary, most of Richardson's endorsers were African-American and Oropeza's were Latino. "Yes, race does exist, but more than that people are concerned about the issues," Richardson said. "We have double the nation's unemployment rate; people care about whether they have a job."

Fairly or unfairly, however, race has been injected into the Clinton-Obama contest in the past few weeks. Until the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary, Obama, who is half-white, half-black, pretty much transcended race, winning Iowa, which is 95% white, and placing a close second in New Hampshire, which is 96% white. But in subsequent weeks both campaigns traded charges of race baiting. Obama accused Clinton of politicizing Nevada's Latino vote and Clinton accused Obama of using her and her husband's remarks on civil rights out of context with black voters. Whatever the intentions the results were telling: Clinton won Nevada on the strength of Latino support and Obama won South Carolina with 78% of the black vote — although he did much better with the white vote, winning about a quarter of it, than some polls had predicted. Obama even addressed the issue head-on in his South Carolina victory speech, saying, "The assumption that African-Americans can't support the white candidate, whites can't support the African-American candidate, blacks and Latinos can't come together — but we are here tonight to say that this is not the America we believe in."

And Obama's campaign is backing up his inclusive words with actions. Realizing they were heading into not just California but Super Tuesday primaries in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, which all have large Latino populations, the Obama campaign has made Latino outreach one if its top priorities. The front desk of its Los Angeles headquarters on the ninth floor of an anonymous office building in Korean town has a sign-up sheet titled: "We really need your help reaching out to Spanish speakers." The list is full. The campaign's extensive Latino outreach program includes 6,000 precinct captains and 223 teams of 1,500 trained volunteers. They were the first up with Spanish language TV and radio ads, and have placed tens of thousands of phone calls reaching out to Latino households.

And they will need it. Currently Obama trails Clinton in polls of Latino voters 59% to 19%, according to the latest Field Poll of California Democratic likely voters. Overall, Clinton leads Obama 39% to 27%. "I doubt that he can win the Latino vote," said Mark DiCamillo, head of the poll. "But if he can make it a little more manageable, two to one or less, that would certainly make an impactů He could win California without winning the Latino vote. Narrowing the margin, that is probably what he's after."

Clinton is hardly giving it up without a fight. In fact, Obama has a lot of catching up to do with her formidable machine in California. Her campaign has placed nearly 650,000 calls to Latino women — part of the nearly two million they've done total, twice as many as the Obama campaign — across the state, 12,000 of them to Latinas in the 37th district. "Most of our outreach is directed to women," said Michael Trujillo, Clinton's California field director. "We made the targeted decision long time ago to focus our resources on where we can have the biggest effect and for us that's women — Latino, African-American, white, Asian. There should not be a woman in this state that we do not reach out to."

The compressed calendar doesn't help Obama, who with more time might have more success with Latino voters, says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and author of a forthcoming book The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House. "The Latino community has a level of trust with her that has been built over time that he hasn't had the time to grow," Hutchinson said. "If he had more time, if the California primary were six months away and he could spend time with elected officials, he would have a fair shot then of really breaking down the invisible and not-so-invisible barriers."

One example of Clinton's close ties with the Hispanic community: she has the backing of the United Farm Workers. The union founded by Cesar Chavez is an unparalleled organizing force of Californian Latinos. Obama recently won the support of Maria Elena Durazo, the head of Los Angeles County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, though her endorsement is personal and doesn't carry the weight of her unions. He also this week won the support of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a favorite of unions, which may also help him with the union vote.

Early voting could also be a problem for Obama. Up to half of the four million likely California Democratic voters are expected to vote before primary day, as more than a million already have done, and many of those have doubtless cast their votes before Obama gained new momentum after winning in South Carolina. No wonder that the Clinton campaign, trying to take advantage of her name recognition, has focused its efforts on early voting. And it worked: Back at the Chavez Center in Long Beach, many of the elderly Latinas, including Salazar, have already voted for Clinton by mailing in absentee ballets. Salazar said she might well have voted for Obama if she had waited until Election Day.

Beyond any possible racial divide, the Obama campaign argues the greater hurdle in the 37th District is that of the establishment: both Richardson and former opponent Oropeza are united in their support of Clinton. And, like California in general — home to two women U.S. Senators, as well as Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House — the district is partial to women, having elected them to Congress since 1996. "I know people want to make a lot about race in our campaign, but it really wasn't about that," Oropeza said. "And it won't be about it in this election. This is about choosing the next President, and for it to be a Democrat it will take us all."