Hispanics urged to flex muscles

Barack Obama’s appeal was unusually direct. “I want you to start voting your numbers,” the Democratic presidential candidate urged the crowd of 10 000 gathered in the New Mexican town of Espanola. “Start flexing your muscles.”

Obama’s entreaties reflect a cause for optimism and concern in the Democratic camp in New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.
All are targets for Obama, and all are states in which a large Hispanic population could make the difference. But turnout is the key. If the Democrats in New Mexico fail to get people out to vote, the party could see a repetition of recent history.

In 2000 New Mexico voted for Al Gore by the tightest of margins: 366 votes. In 2004, George W Bush and Karl Rove engineered a 6 000-vote Republican win. This time, polls show Obama with an eight-point lead over his Republican rival.

The Obama campaign has spent $20-million reaching out to Hispanic voters nationally, and has flooded states such as New Mexico with Spanish-language TV and radio ads. This time, as Obama let his crowd know, the stress is on getting the Democrats to the polls.

At the Obama campaign office in the picturesque town plaza in Las Vegas, volunteers drift in and out, while voters­ call in to collect yard signs. “Our goal is to knock on 2 000 doors,” urges a sign.

But there are problems for the youthful Team Obama, installed in the town since the summer. The town of 14 000 and the surrounding San Miguel county voted heavily for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic caucus. “There were a lot of hurt feelings,” says Thomas Suazo, local party chairperson.

Those feelings were not helped by the tactics of Team Obama, a clash of cultures that Suazo characterises as traditionalists versus progressives. The traditionalists would hold barbeques, hand out stickers and rely on speeches; the progressives prefer text messages, emails and debate watch parties.

The new approach has alienated many older, more traditional Hispanic Democrats, the ones who can normally be relied on to vote. “You’ve got families in the north who have been here since before this was a state,” says Gabriel Sanchez, of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. “There is a patron-type system there, with a handful of old-style political families wielding power. Hispanics have had a lot of political representation. It’s not a question of getting a place at the table. They’ve had that.”

During the primary campaign, as Hispanics overwhelmingly voted for Clinton, many questioned whether they would be ready to elect an African-American president. The question still holds. A local Republican chairman in northern New Mexico was forced to resign last month after telling a reporter from the BBC: “Hispanics came here as conquerors. African-Americans came here as slaves. Hispanics consider themselves above blacks. They won’t vote for a black president.”

The remarks caused a storm, with Hispanic leaders rushing to deny the charge. “The $1-million question is whether it is race or the economy that is motivating Democratic Hispanics,” says Sanchez. “I would be shocked if race was the deciding factor, but you never know.”

Immigration is not a live issue for Hispanic voters in northern New Mexico. Ask them about it and they invariably pause before noting that they didn’t migrate anywhere: the US border migrated south.

Polling shows Hispanic voters across the nation preoccupied with the same list of priorities as white voters: the economy, healthcare, education. Immigration tends to rank around seventh place.

Nevertheless, the Republican party’s disastrous handling of immigration reform may have served to alienate many voters who considered that they were being criminalised for being Hispanic. And the perceived abandonment by John McCain of the moderate immigration reform he had sponsored as he sought his party’s nomination has rankled with many Hispanic voters.—

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