By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor
Latino political leaders have been touting the potential power of Latino voters for years. Though we knew that demographics would end up proving them right sooner or later, their discourse was starting to sound like they had hired The Boy Who Cried Wolf as a spokesman.
Then, 2008 happened.
The November presidential election became the quinceañera party where the Latino vote was introduced in the grand ballroom of American politics as a powerful voting bloc which can have an important role in deciding a nationwide election. (As we’ve already said before, there are many, extremely varied “Latino votes,” but we use the term here to simplify — though not oversimplify — matters.)
Both exit polls and post-Election Day surveys showed that Latino advocates’ turnout predictions had been fulfilled: over 10 million Latinos voted, as compared with 7.6 million in the 2004 presidential election and over 6 million in 2000. An America’s Voice poll [get the pdf here] claims Latinos were 9 percent of the electorate, “approximately 11 million voters.”
Hispanic voters were crucial in President-Elect Barack Obama’s victories in coveted Florida and in the key western states of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. Their vote was also important in Virginia and Indiana — and some activists claim they made a sizable contribution in North Carolina, too.
While polls and pundits denied that immigration was a priority for Latino voters, it seems clear that the issue did play a role, if not in the embracing of Barack Obama, at least in the rejection of the Republican Party. Maybe Latinos don’t decide who to vote for based solely on a candidate’s position on immigration, but it seems likely that they weigh this issue when they decide who they will not vote for.
Just days before the Nov. 4 election, Obama called on Latinos to vote in “record numbers,” promising to start working on immigration reform in his first year.
During the transition that will conclude with the Jan. 20 inauguration, Obama sent signs that he intends to keep his promise.
Pro-immigration activists were pleased with the designation of Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar at the head of the transition’s immigration task force. Obama seems to have done enough to please the Latino politicos who demanded a strong representation in the incoming administration: although New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson didn’t get the top State Department job, he’ll be secretary of commerce; in addition, Ken Salazar was named interior secretary and Hilda Solís, labor secretary.
What’s more, showing a closeness to the progressive side of the immigration debate, Obama named Cecilia Muñoz, a vice president of the National Council of La Raza and a staunch advocate for immigrants, as director of intergovernmental affairs in the incoming White House.
Those are promising signs. Starting Jan. 21, we’ll see whether the real world of legislative and presidential politics has room for comprehensive immigration reform to be passed soon. Latino voters — with their newfound importance and power — will be watching to see if Obama keeps his word.