Is There Really a Latino Swing Vote?

In this year’s historic elections Latinos are poised to play a historic role. If Latinos vote in the precedent-setting numbers that marked their participation in the presidential primaries, they could be responsible for putting a candidate in office.

When Sen. Hillary Clinton exited the race in June, the support that she had among this voting block appeared up for grabs. Both campaigns released Spanish language ads and Sen. John McCain even traveled to Mexico and Colombia to appeal to Hispanic voters. Demographic profiles showed that Latinos could help decide who would win key battleground states like New Mexico, Colorado, Florida and Nevada.

But despite the hype, perhaps Latino votes aren’t really that swing-able? Ever since Clinton’s departure, polls have shown Latinos steadily moving to support Obama.  A recent Gallup Poll appears to confirm this trend, showing Latinos backing Obama 59% to 29% over McCain. The poll concludes that Latino support enjoyed by Clinton appears to have shifted to Obama.

The shift in poll numbers raise the question: Is this group really as elastic as the political narrative has suggested?

This election cycle has taught us that polls in July may mean nothing come November. Issues rise and fall in importance and candidates change tactics, rhetoric and emphasis. But the trend is worth noting. Latinos appear to prefer the Democratic candidate for President now, and the Republican candidate’s attempts to woo them has done little to win them back to the party they’ve increasingly supported in the past two presidential cycles.

So what’s happened to suggest that Latinos may be picking their candidate early and possibly sticking with him?

First, there’s the strong backing of Obama by Latino elected officials, such as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had been a vigorous Clinton supporter. The Los Angeles Times describes Villaraigosa as a “nimble politician” who saw the way the political tides were turning and quickly got on board with the Obama campaign. Whatever his motivations, his strong showing of support for the Senator from Illinois defies the frequently-heard argument that Latino leaders have qualms about Obama.

Second, Latinos like other voters, rate the economy and Iraq as their top two issues, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The subprime mortgage crisis has disproportionately affected Latinos, many of whom could only qualify for subprime loans. The National Council of La Raza has said that the housing crisis will be a major focus at this year’s conference in San Diego, where both presidential candidates will speak on Saturday.

Latinos also represent a growing part of the armed forces. Enlistments are climbing rapidly, despite opposition to the Iraq War, and the majority of Latinos are joining the Marine Corps and serving on the frontlines in Iraq.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, is immigration reform. Both McCain and Obama support border security and a path towards legalization for the 10-12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. But McCain has emphasized border security over the path towards citizenship, a rhetorical shift that he made during the primaries and that’s been carried over into the general election.

Take his Mexico trip for example. Though McCain made numerous political overtures to Latinos, the main headline coming out of the trip was “ Security First”.

“We must have comprehensive immigration reform, but the American people want our borders secured first,” McCain said at his meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

He repeated that theme at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) conference in Washington, DC yesterday. McCain told the crowd “many Americans – with good cause – didn’t believe us when we said we would secure our border, so we failed.” Other than those passing remarks, his speech largely avoided talking about immigration.

Obama came on stage at the LULAC convention and went after McCain’s reticence on the subject, saying that McCain had admitted that he wouldn’t vote for his own immigration reform bill if it came up for a vote again. But McCain isn’t giving up on winning the latino vote. The Los Angeles Times reports McCain will use more expansive language and make immigration a central part of his campaign agenda, starting with his appearance at the National Council of La Raza conference this weekend. In a new video that will be unveiled at the conference, McCain promises that he will secure U.S. borders first and then make sure that employers can legally hire workers. The language does not fully embrace a pathway to legalization, but the LA Times says that it contains the subtexts that legalization advocates use when talking about the issue.

But will McCain’s attempts to speak in code and strike a balance win over a group that has felt alienated by the Republican Party, which has become associated (fairly or not) with anti-immigrant sentiment?

Weld County in Colorado, just north of Denver, may be an example of why winning over Latinos, without openly embracing a pathway to legalization, may be difficult. The area has a growing Latino population and is also a well of anti-immigrant sentiment. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid in 2006 against a Swift & Company meatpacking plant raised tensions further, spurring a heated public debate on the value of having a growing immigrant population in the county.

Weld is in Congressional District 4, a targeted race this cycle. Turnout will be high and the immigration debate will be a key issue. Who can McCain rely on to support him in an area like this? An emphasis on border security could drum up the Republican base that opposes immigration reform, while the Latino population, already turned off by anti-immigration rhetoric in the area, may think that the Democratic candidate is the safer bet.

Which raises the final point. Latinos in swing states are also in states where immigration reform is a big issue. Anti-immigrant sentiment among local populations and public officials have potentially soured Latinos on the Republican Party. Voting Democratic may be a response in some of these areas, especially when the Democratic candidate for president is accusing his Republican rival of backtracking on immigration reform.

But as this election has already taught us, what seems inevitable rarely turns out that way.