Why Clinton can count on Latinos

Harry P. Pachon is a professor at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC and president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. Rodolfo O. de la Garza is a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and vice president for research at the institute.

Hillary Clinton is doing extraordinarily well among Latino voters, compared with rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards. According to a Times/CNN/Politico poll Tuesday, she’s running 2 to 1 ahead of Obama among California Latinos. In the Nevada caucuses, exit polls indicated that she received roughly two out of three Latino votes. Nationally, polls show only a slightly lower level of support. These findings are particularly significant because Latino voters in the general election are projected to total over 9 million, most concentrated in states rich in electoral college votes, such as California and New York, or in key “swing” states, such as New Mexico and New Jersey, in which past voting patterns show that it only takes a small percentage of the Latino vote to push a candidate’s totals up or down.

Pundits are explaining the failure of Obama to ignite the allegiance of the majority of the Latino electorate to date in terms of anti-black prejudices. But there are better explanations.

First, and most obvious, is the name recognition that the Clintons enjoy in the Latino community. Bill Clinton was the first president to have two Latino Cabinet members serve simultaneously. Moreover, during the Clinton years, rising economic tides lifted Latino boats along with many others. Even at the height of the impeachment controversy, polls by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute indicated that Clinton had a 70% approval rating among Latino voters. In contrast, Obama is a relatively new face and voice for all but Illinois Latinos.

Perhaps more significant, Hillary Clinton has done her homework by gaining early endorsements from Latino leaders who have demonstrated influence among their constituencies. Five of the seven Latino congressional representatives in California are on her side. In addition, nationally recognized politicians , such as L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Henry Cisneros, a former San Antonio mayor and U.S. housing secretary, have endorsed Clinton. California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Raul Yzaguirre, who for 30 years headed the National Council of La Raza, are national co-chairmen of her campaign. Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton’s campaign manager, is the first Latina to run a presidential campaign.

History is one reason why Clinton has such a strong stable of Latino supporters. Many of her endorsers, such as Cisneros, established or consolidated their political networks during President Clinton’s two terms. When younger Latino politicians look at the Clinton campaign organization and ask “What Latinos are in your campaign?” they see well-known, influential faces at the top and at the state and local levels. In contrast, Obama’s campaign has few such stars.


Second, and contrary to machismo stereotypes, Latinos have no problem voting for a woman for high public office. Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina and Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles), Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.) are just a few examples of many breakthrough “female firsts” for Latinos in politics.

In short, Clinton has a decade and a half of experience and ties to prominent Latinos in the regions where most Latinos live. Obama has just two years in national public office and a political base in the Midwest. In his home state of Illinois, Latino voters are about 5% of the electorate. Compare this to the Southwest or Northeast, where Latino voters make up about 18% and 8% respectively.

Undoubtedly some Latinos, like some members of every racial and ethnic group in the U.S., will cast their votes on the basis of race. For the majority of Latinos, however, it is the political calculus of long-established relationships combined with early outreach and the support of community influentials that are most likely to carry the day.