Voting like it's manana

Joe Mathews has been a Times staff writer for eight years. He is becoming an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Ahora marchamos, manana votamos.

"Now we march, tomorrow we vote." So promised the diverse but predominantly Latino crowds during the massive 2006 immigration demonstrations in Los Angeles and other cities. Two years later, in the wake of this month's California presidential primaries, one can't help but wonder: Is it manana yet?

California, of course, is ground zero for the long-awaited Latino voting explosion. Political observers have speculated for years about when California's approximately 14 million Latinos -- who, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, represent about a third of California's adults but only 14% of its likely voters -- would seize political power commensurate with their central role in every other realm of the state.

So here's the news from the Feb. 5 primary: Although the data are limited and decidedly preliminary, the available information suggests a significant boost in the pace of Latino gains.

The most eye-popping figure? Thirty percent of voters surveyed in exit polls from the Feb. 5 Democratic primary in California identified themselves as Latino. If that number is accurate, it's a milestone. The percentage of Latino voters in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary electorate was a mere 16%; in 2000, it was 17%. On the Republican side, the numbers appear to be climbing as well: Latinos made up 13% of the voters on Feb. 5, according to the exit polls, up from 8% in the last competitive Republican presidential contest, in 2000.

Of course, these numbers should be viewed with caution. There is justifiable skepticism about exit polls in general and especially when they survey Latino voters. Sample sizes are often small, and the 2004 presidential election exit polls purporting to show that more than 40% of the Latino vote went to President Bush were largely discredited.

Still, a glance at the vote counts in predominantly Latino precincts offers evidence that this year's exit polls may not be far off; in many such precincts, the number of votes cast has more than doubled since 2004. (Statewide, among all voters, the number of ballots cast in the primary increased from nearly 6.7 million in 2004 to more than 8.3 million at last count this year.)

Take Los Angeles County, home to 40% of the state's Latino voters, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. In Pico Rivera, which is more than 88% Latino, precincts showed huge gains. In one precinct, the number of votes went from 206 in the 2004 primaries to 525 this year. East Los Angeles precincts saw similar jumps. "The surge is real," says John McLaughlin, a GOP pollster who has long studied the Latino vote in California and elsewhere.

The apparent magnitude of the Latino turnout this year caught some pollsters by surprise, resulting in preelection polls that indicated the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama race was closer than it proved to be. John Zogby, whose polls showed a growing Obama lead in a race Clinton ultimately won by nearly 10 points, said that Latinos made up "9 or 10%" of the raw samples in his survey. He weighted the statistics slightly to take into account what he thought might be a somewhat higher Latino turnout than that -- but apparently not as high as he should have. "I can turn 9% into 19%, but not 29%," Zogby says. "We just blew it."

Even though more Latinos voted on Feb. 5 than in previous primaries, it's not entirely clear whether there is a marked improvement in their rate of political participation. Yes, there are more Latinos registering to vote and casting ballots, but there are also more voting-eligible Latinos. The precinct numbers portend at least a slightly better rate of turnout by registered voters. One East L.A. precinct is typical: In 2004, 132 out of 432 registered voters cast ballots in the presidential primaries. This month, 285 out of 675 registered voters voted.

What's indisputable is that Latinos are fast becoming a more important part of the electorate. About 6 in 10 are Democrats, and only about 1 in 5 are Republicans. In California on Feb. 5, they voted more for Clinton than Obama -- by 2 to 1. Polls suggest that Latino voters were drawn to the voting booth by the same issues that drove greater turnout across the board: frustration with the country's direction, a near-national primary that gave California a starring role and polls showing a close and dramatic race.

Although tens of millions of dollars have been spent in recent election cycles on voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, much of it targeting Latinos, it's still unclear which tactics, if any, are producing more voters.

Are efforts by foundations and community organizations to make direct contact with voters by mail and phone bearing fruit? How much is the sophisticated outreach of the presidential candidates contributing?

Could economics be a factor? Some political consultants have suggested that campaign workers are often paid less in Latino areas, making outreach to those voters cost-efficient.

Javier Gonzalez, executive director of Strengthening Our Lives, a union-backed political organization that registers voters in Los Angeles, says the record number of statewide ballot initiatives in the last five years is contributing to the surge. The paid workers who gather signatures to help qualify those measures also routinely register voters on the spot (so that they can sign petitions as registered voters).

In interviews with three dozen experts on the Latino vote, the most common view was that the rise in Latino turnout reflected a backlash against anti-immigrant legislation and rhetoric. In this view, the vote fulfills the promise of the 2006 marches.

"Latinos and immigrants in general feel under attack, and they really get that, in this country, unless you have some power, you're going to get run over by the bus," says Eliseo Medina, who oversees 17 states as international executive vice president for the Service Employees International Union. "I've been an organizer for 40 years, and I've never seen this level of excitement in the community."

But many pollsters caution that most Latino voters are not foreign-born -- and that most do not list immigration as one of their top concerns.

Population researchers argue that the voting increase may merely reflect natural demographic shifts. Latinos have become a bigger part of the electorate not only because their raw numbers are up but because the number of older, white voters is declining. Latino registration has steadily climbed to 18% of the total voter registration and 25% of Democratic registration in California, according to numbers provided by the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonpartisan group devoted to policy analysis.

"It's just one of those moments when a lot of factors come together," says Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers.

Huerta, who campaigned for Clinton in California, is traveling to Texas to do the same. She argues that Latino turnout in Texas is likely to grow, but will it match the California surge?

More Latinos are voting across the U.S. this year, but turnout is way up among other groups, too. In Arizona's primary, 18% of Democratic voters were Latino -- essentially the same as in 2004, when the figure was 17%. Only in California have polls shown a surge in Latino turnout that surpassed the greater turnout among all voters.

If those exit polls withstand scrutiny and the trend continues, Californians may be able to look back at this month's primaries and brag that manana arrived here first.

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