Long the untapped force in California’s electorate, Latino voters went to the polls in apparent record numbers Tuesday, helping to propel President Clinton to an overwhelming victory in the state and tipping tight races in favor of some Democratic candidates for Congress and the Legislature, according to exit polls and analysts.
And, in a year with near-historic national lows in overall voter participation, Latinos also played an important role in other key states, contributing to the first Democratic presidential triumph in Florida in 20 years and voting overwhelmingly to achieve a rare Democratic presidential victory in Arizona.
“What you have is a good Latino turnout year juxtaposed with a bad overall turnout year,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Research Institute, which studies Latino voting trends. “This should be a nail in the coffin in the myth of Latino nonparticipation.”
Though Latinos have long been Democratic loyalists, exit polls showed Latinos regularly supported Clinton and other Democrats in this election by runaway majorities that sometimes ran 3 to 1 and more--bloc voting more typically associated with African Americans. Nationally, according to the Los Angeles Times exit poll, 71% of Latinos voted for Clinton in 1996, a 16-point increase over 1992.
Even in Florida, where the huge Cuban American population is traditionally conservative and ardently pro-GOP, exit polls conducted by Voter News Service showed Latinos almost equally divided between Bob Dole and Clinton. The president’s showing among Latinos in Florida virtually doubled from that in 1992. The surprising crossover of many Florida Latinos to Clinton contributed significantly to his victory in a traditionally Republican state.
Underscoring the growing Latino political clout across the nation was the selection Thursday of Cruz Bustamante, a Fresno Democrat, to be the next Assembly speaker, the first Latino to hold that position in California history.
At the same time, two Latino candidates in Orange County are trailing--pending absentee ballot results--in close races with Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove and a GOP Assembly incumbent.
The unusually forceful Latino push toward the Democrats, analysts cautioned, was less an embrace of the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party than a backlash against the GOP’s strong identification with a perceived anti-immigrant agenda. High-profile, Republican-led efforts to cut immigration levels and slash benefits for legal immigrants provided the impetus for Latinos to flex their might where it counts--at the polls.
“The Republicans pushed Latinos towards the Democrats with all their might,” said Cecilia Munoz, deputy vice president for policy with the National Council of La Raza.
It is a strategy, pioneered two years ago by California Gov. Pete Wilson and his championing of Proposition 187, that some Republicans are now openly questioning. Some wonder if the use of immigration as a wedge issue served to alienate a fast-growing, generally socially conservative population that could provide ample GOP recruits--especially in the pivotal, heavily populated states where Latinos are concentrated.
“The Republican Party is being perceived as an anti-immigration party, and I think it’s something that Republicans as a group, from the governor on down, need to address,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based GOP political consultant troubled by the electoral trends. “What worked in 1994 did not work in 1996.”
The Latino population, said Hoffenblum and others, is a diverse one that can be difficult to pigeonhole politically. Latinos in California voted 3 to 1 against Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action measure approved by voters Tuesday. At the same time, Times exit polls showed, they voted 51%-49% against legalizing marijuana for medical use, an initiative that also won approval.
Despite recent gains, Latinos remain a group whose electoral punch falls far short of their overall population. The most optimistic projections indicate that Latino voters still only constitute 13% of California’s voting population--the largest share ever, but only about half the group’s overall proportion of the state.
The Latino population still includes many noncitizens, who are barred from voting. Latinos also tend to be poorer, less well-educated and more likely to be younger than 18--all factors that deflate participation.
Even strong support from Latinos could not guarantee success for three high-profile Latino Democrats--Loretta Sanchez and Lou Correa, respectively congressional and Assembly hopefuls in Orange County, and Lily Cervantes, who lost her Assembly race in the Monterey-Santa Cruz area.
Sanchez trails Dornan by 233 votes and Correa lags 1,419 votes behind incumbent Jim Morrissey with thousands of absentee ballots yet to be counted.
A preliminary analysis of the Dornan-Sanchez race showed that in precincts with large Latino populations, the turnout was about 40% on average, while in precincts with low Latino populations, about 60% of registered voters cast ballots.
However, some activists took consolation in the fact that a Latino candidate mounted a strong challenge to the congressman.
“Dornan used to be impenetrable,” noted Gonzalez of the Southwest Voter Research Institute. “We have candidates who, a few years ago, would have had no chance against an incumbent. Now they’re making them run like hell.”
Notwithstanding those defeats, analysts dissecting the Latino vote see special significance in the apparently migrating influence of the Latino electorate beyond ethnic enclaves, as the Latino population itself spreads from traditional population centers. Conventional wisdom has usually viewed Latino voting strength as concentrated in certain “safe” electoral districts, a common occurrence in U.S. ethnic politics.
“The Latino vote can be ignored if it’s only alive in East L.A. and districts represented by Latinos,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected Officials. “But we see the real impact of Latino voting strength when we have really tight, competitive races.”
A case in point: Democrat Sally Morales Havice narrowly won an Assembly seat in southeast Los Angeles County with strong Latino backing. She will be part of a bulging, 13-member Latino Democratic block that includes Assemblywoman-elect Deborah Ortiz, elected from a non-Latino-majority district in Sacramento, and Tony Cardenas, who becomes the first Latino state legislator from the San Fernando Valley.
In addition, Rep. George E. Brown in San Bernardino, the dean of California congressional liberals, credits a large vote in mostly Latino precincts with helping push him over the top in an extremely close rate.
Analysts also pointed to the Latino influence in close Democratic victories--from that of Betty Karnette in the 27th Senate District in Downey and San Pedro, to Adam Schiff’s triumph in the 21st Senate District, which stretches from Los Feliz and Burbank into the San Gabriel Valley.
The GOP could take some solace in the victory of Rod Pacheco, a senior deputy district attorney in Riverside. Pacheco, 38, the first Latino GOP assemblyman in recent memory, said he does not plan to vote for Democrat Bustamante for Assembly speaker.
In Arizona, where Democrats prevailed in the presidential race for the first time since 1948, exit polls showed Latinos voted for Clinton by a more than 10-1 margin.
In Texas, the substantial Latino electorate energized around the senatorial campaign of Victor Morales, favoring the populist schoolteacher by an almost 4-1 margin over Republican Phil Gramm. Nonetheless, Gramm won convincingly, garnering a more than 2-1 majority among non-Latino whites--a forceful reminder that successful statewide candidates must inevitably move beyond a Latino base.
The Latino shift toward the Democrats in 1996 is unfolding at an unpropitious moment for Republicans. The Latino share of the electorate is increasing rapidly in several key states, thanks in large part to an unprecedented national rush to become U.S. citizens and aggressive registration and get-out-the vote campaigns. Between 1992 and 1996, Latinos rose from 7% to 10% of voters in California, according to Los Angeles Times exit polls. In Texas, Latinos rose from 10% to 16%, and in Florida from 11% to 12%, according to exit polls by Voter News Service, a consortium of CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and Associated Press. Although Latinos are far from an electoral majority in any of those states, the 1996 tendency toward bloc Democratic voting is an ominous one for the GOP.
“If you’re 14% of the electorate, and you vote in a bloc, that can change the direction of an election,” said Hoffenblum, the GOP consultant.
Based on interviews with 1,068 Latino voters in 25 California precincts on Tuesday, the Southwest Voter Research Institute projected that 53.4% of California’s more than 2 million Latino voters turned out on election day. The institute estimates that mail-in ballots should bring turnout to 1.3 million and increase the turnout rate to between 63% and 68%.
California officials report that the overall statewide turnout now stands at 59.2%, a figure that does not yet include all absentee ballots cast.
In recent years, Latinos have become U.S. citizens at an unprecedented rate and have been targeted in aggressive registration and get-out-the vote drives. Since 1992, according to Southwest Voter Research Institute, the pool of Latino registered voters has grown 28.7%, to more than 6.6 million people nationwide. California leads the trend, the institute said, with 618,000 new Latinos registering to vote since 1992, a 44.7% increase.
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The Latino vote grew from 7% of the California electorate in 1992 to 10% this year and was also significantly more Democratic. Here’s a breakdown.
Source: Los Angeles Times exit poll
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According to a Times exit poll conducted Tuesday, California Latino voters are younger, less well-off, less educated and more likely to be Democrats and female than the state electorate as a whole.
All Latinos Voters AGE 18-24 24% 9% 25-29 12% 10% 30-44 35% 35% 45-64 22% 35% 65 and older 7% 11% INCOME Less than $20,000 21% 12% $20,000-$39,000 32% 23% $40,000-$59,999 23% 23% $60,000-$100,000 20% 28% More than $100,000 4% 14% GENDER Male 41% 47% Female 59% 53% PARTY AFFILIATION Democrat 71% 45% Independent 10% 14% Republican 17% 38% Other 2% 3% EDUCATION Less than high school 17% 5% High School graduate 20% 15% Some college or more 63% 80%
HOW THE POLL WAS CONDUCTED: The Angeles Times Poll interviewed 2,473 Californians who cast ballots in the general election Tuesday as they exited 40 polling places across the state. Precincts were chosen based on the pattern of turnout in past general elections. The survey was a self-administered, confidential questionnaire. The margin of sampling error for all groups is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For some subgroups, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Ballots were in both English and Spanish.