Clinton’s Latino spin
If a Hillary Clinton campaign official told a reporter that white voters never support black candidates, would the media have swallowed the message whole? What if a campaign pollster began whispering that Jews don’t have an “affinity” for African American politicians? Would the pundits have accepted the premise unquestioningly?
A few weeks ago, Sergio Bendixen, a Clinton pollster and Latino expert, publicly articulated what campaign officials appear to have been whispering for months. In an interview with Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker, Bendixen explained that “the Hispanic voter -- and I want to say this very carefully -- has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”
The spin worked. For the last several weeks, it’s been on the airwaves (Tucker Carlson, “Hardball,” NPR), generally tossed off as if it were conventional wisdom. And it has shown up in sources as far afield as Agence France-Presse and the London Daily Telegraph, which wrote about a “voting bloc traditionally reluctant to support black candidates.”
The spin also helped shape the analysis of the Jan. 19 Nevada caucus, in which Clinton won the support of Latino voters by a margin of better than 2 to 1. Forget the possibility that Nevada’s Latino voters may have actually preferred Clinton or, at the very least, had a fondness for her husband; pundits embraced the idea that Latino voters simply didn’t like the fact that her opponent was black.
But was Bendixen’s blanket statement true? Far from it, and the evidence is overwhelming enough to make you wonder why in the world the Clinton campaign would want to portray Latino voters as too unrelentingly racist to vote for Barack Obama.
University of Washington political scientist Matt Barreto has compiled a list of black big-city mayors who have received broad Latino support over the last several decades. In 1983, Harold Washington pulled 80% of the Latino vote in Chicago. David Dinkins won 73% in New York in 1989. And Denver’s Wellington Webb garnered more than 70% in 1991, as did Ron Kirk in Dallas in 1995 and then again in 1997 and 1999.
He could have also added that longtime Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley won a healthy chunk of the Latino vote in 1973 and then the clear majority in his mayoral reelection campaigns of 1977, 1981, 1985 and 1989.
Here in L.A., all three black members of Congress represent heavily Latino districts and ultimately couldn’t survive without significant Latino support. Five other black House members represent districts that are more than 25% Latino -- including New York’s Charles Rangel and Texan Al Green -- and are also heavily dependent on Latino voters.
So, given all this evidence, why did this notion get repeated so nonchalantly? For one, despite the focus on demographic changes in America, journalists’ ignorance of the aspirations of Latino America is pretty remarkable. They just don’t know much about the biggest minority in the nation. And two, no Latino organizations function in the way that, say, the Anti-Defamation League does for Jewish Americans. In other words, you can pretty much say whatever you want about Latinos without suffering any political repercussions.
Unlike merely “exuberant” supporters, whose mushy grasp of facts Clinton has explained by saying they can sometimes be “uncontrollable,” pollsters such as Bendixen most certainly work -- and speak -- at the whim and in the pay of the candidate.
So what would the Clinton campaign have to gain from spreading this misinformation? It helps undermine one of Obama’s central selling points, that he can build bridges and unite Americans of all types, and it jibes with the Clinton strategy of pigeon-holing Obama as the “black candidate.” (Witness Bill Clinton’s statement last week that his wife might lose South Carolina because of Obama’s growing black support.)
But the social costs of the Clintons’ strategy might end up being higher than the country is willing to pay. According to Stanford Law professor Richard Thompson Ford, who just published “The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse,” such political stunts can be “self-fulfilling prophecies.”
“It could make black voters more hostile to Latinos,” he said. “And Latinos who hear it might think that they somehow ought to be at odds with blacks. These kinds of statements generate interracial tensions.”
At the Democratic presidential debate in Nevada, Tim Russert asked Clinton whether the New Yorker quote represented the view of her campaign. “No, he was making a historical statement,” she said. “And, obviously, what we’re trying to do is bring America together so that everybody feels like they’re involved and they have a stake in the future.”