It seems every election in Texas is accompanied by big talk from political pundits that, at long last, the slumbering Latino vote will become a decisive force at the ballot box. So far, it’s been more promise than reality.
But this year may finally be different. No, really. The campaigns for Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have streamed into Texas ahead of the state’s critical primary on March 4. Both campaigns are convinced that the Latino vote, which will likely comprise a third of the Democratic primary electorate, will be the key to Texas.
For Clinton, the calculus is simple. The Latino vote has been an indispensable segment of her coalition. She carried that vote in Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. In California on February 5, Latinos probably saved Clinton’s candidacy by delivering a critical win in the nation’s largest state. Despite polls showing Obama surging ahead there, Clinton secured an impressive 10-point victory. Latinos made up 30 percent of the vote, a record turnout, and 67 percent went for Clinton, according to exit polls.
The Clinton campaign hopes to duplicate that scenario in Texas. Much of the credit for the Latino turnout in California went to Clinton’s field director, Mike Trujillo, a former staffer for Los Angeles Mayor and Clinton supporter Antonio Villaraigosa. Clinton sent Trujillo to Texas to rerun the California playbook.
Moreover, the Clintons have a long history in South Texas, dating to the early 1970s, when Hillary helped register Latino voters along the border for the McGovern campaign. She and Bill are friends with some of South Texas’ best-known politicians, including former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros.
Garry Mauro, the longtime Clinton friend who’s working on her Texas campaign, has helped with the Clintons’ appeal to Latinos in the past. In fall 1992, Mauro, then-land commissioner, designed a South Texas strategy that forced George H.W. Bush to invest money in the state he called home.
Even Obama’s supporters concede that Clinton has considerable appeal among Latinos. “That Clinton name still has a lot of currency, and Bill Clinton especially is still very much well liked among Latinos in Texas,” said Rafael Anchia, a Dallas state representative who’s helping the Obama campaign reach out to Latino voters. The question is not whether Clinton will poll well with Latinos, but how well.
To have any chance of winning in Texas, Obama will probably have to keep Clinton’s share of the Latino vote under 60 percent. His camp believes he can nibble away at Clinton’s edge in the weeks before primary day. Anchia said that voters in general like Obama more as they get to know him. Obama ads have debuted on Spanish language radio and television stations.
Anchia says the campaign believes that while older Latinos may remain loyal to Clinton, the younger Latino voters in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio will flock to Obama, who’s proven popular with the youth vote. Several young Latino state representatives from urban areas have endorsed him, including Anchia, Trey Martinez Fischer (San Antonio), Norma Chavez (El Paso), Ana Hernandez (Houston), and Eddie Lucio III (Brownsville). And Anchia points out that North Texas has more Latinos than South Texas.
The question is how many of those urban Latinos can vote and will vote in the Democratic primary. Those numbers are difficult to discern – after all, voters don’t mark their ethnicity on the ballot. In an effort to understand the potential Latino impact on the primary, the Observer asked Leland Beatty, an Austin political consultant who specializes in voter identification, to analyze recent Democratic primaries and make an educated projection of Latino turnout [see graphic page 10].
Beatty qualified his analysis by saying that the 2008 primary may attract so many voters that it could be difficult to model. It’s possible the Democratic primary turnout will be double that of 2004. With so many new voters flooding the polling stations, predicting how many will be Latino and how many will be African-American is tough. Based on past primaries, Beatty’s computer models projected that Latinos would comprise 31 percent of the vote. The largest group lives in South Texas, where the more than 183,000 Latino voters make up more than 75 percent of the electorate.
The Latino vote will be the story to watch and could determine who wins the most important Texas primary in two decades.