The Latino vote is pro-Clinton, not anti-Obama

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The results of Tuesday’s primaries brought a renewed and vigorous debate about the Latino vote and the “Latino gap” for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). States such as California, Illinois, New York, Arizona and New Mexico have very large Latino electorates and were very important battlegrounds. Raoul Contreras claims in his Blowback article “The Bradley effect is still in effect” that Latinos will not vote for a black candidate. The empirical evidence does not match his opinions, and the results from Super Tuesday and other important elections demonstrate Latino willingness to vote for African American candidates. Furthermore, the Latino vote in 2008 should be viewed as a pro-Clinton vote, not an anti-Obama or an anti-black vote, as Contreras and others have suggested.

Without a doubt, Contreras’ claims are not supported with credible evidence. It is incorrect to equate Latino support for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in 2008 with anti-Obama or anti-black voting patterns. In multiple national surveys and in our own polling among Latinos in Nevada and California, we find that the Clinton advantage is driven primarily by her eight years as first lady and seven years in the Senate. By contrast, in April of last year, a national survey of Latino registered voters found that 35% had no opinion about Obama, compared with only 8% for Clinton. Even as recently as mid-January, the Field Poll reported that 27% of Latinos in California had “no opinion” about Obama.

In short, while Obama has become well known in a relatively short time among political observers, he did not rise to national prominence among Latinos until this campaign. Moreover, this name-recognition advantage for Clinton was enhanced by a strong and aggressive advertising and outreach effort by her campaign and a string of high-profile endorsements. She has hired an independent Latino pollster and aired significantly more Spanish language radio and television ads. This must be contrasted with the Obama campaign’s anemic and particularly ineffective outreach effort to the Latino segment of the electorate. Even Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a prominent Latino supporter of Obama, has criticized the presidential candidate for insufficient outreach to Latinos. In short, there are many reasons why Clinton enjoys a large advantage among Latino voters, and none of them has anything to do with racism.


The claim, then, that her support is somehow evidence of Latino unwillingness to support African American candidates is wrong on its face. Latino voters have demonstrated strong support for African American candidates in the past, across a variety of circumstances. Harold Washington, David Dinkins, Wellington Webb and Ron Kirk were all elected as mayors of major American cities with Latino vote shares from 70% to 80%. More recently African American mayors have won a majority of the Latino vote in elections against white women. In Cleveland’s 2005 mayoral contest, Frank Jackson won an estimated 65% of the Latino vote, defeating Jane Campbell. In Inglewood, Roosevelt Dorn won more than 70% of the Latino vote to defeat Judy Dunlap. Contreras is wrong to suggest that that Maxine Waters’ congressional district is a poor example of Latino voting for black candidates because more than 80% of Latinos voted for Waters in 2006. Waters herself has stated in a National Public Radio interview that, “somebody said that Latinos wouldn’t vote for a black. They vote for me all the time. There are any number of instances where our districts are majority Latino .. .and they vote over and over. I just don’t see that.”

Obama himself has a strong record of winning Latino votes. In 2000, when Obama challenged incumbent Bobby Rush in the Democratic primary for 1st Congressional District in Illinois, he won more Latino votes than African American votes. In 2004, when he ran for the U.S. Senate Democratic nomination in Illinois, Obama received more Latino votes than Latino candidate Gerry Chico. Claims that Latinos will not vote for Obama are clearly false.

In 1973, when Tom Bradley was elected mayor of Los Angeles, he lost among Latinos, and the punditry then, as now, speculated that Latinos would not vote for a black candidate. But Bradley’s political skills and the inherent shared interests of Latino voters and the Bradley coalition reversed this trend. Despite Contreras’ anecdote that his grandfather voted against Bradley in 1982, Bradley won an estimated 70% of the Latino vote in his gubernatorial contest. Over 40% of Latino and African American Republicans voted for Bradley, compared with only 15% of white Republicans.

Returning to 2008, Super Tuesday offers many insights into the Latino vote. In California, exit polls gave Clinton 67% of the Latino vote compared with 32% for Obama. However, Obama did considerably better among Latinos in Connecticut (53%), Illinois (51%) and Arizona (42%). We should be careful to make sweeping generalizations on the basis of individual observations. Even in California, where much was made of the Kennedy endorsements and Latino town hall rallies held by Obama, Clinton carried a 2-1 advantage. Yet, according to Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll, 55% of all California Latinos (Democrats and Republicans) held a favorable opinion of Obama, compared with just 18% unfavorable. Further, an exit poll by Loyola Marymount University found that 93% of Latinos stated that the country was ready to elect a black president, even though 67% of Latinos voted for Clinton.

The point is to be careful of assuming that racism shapes Latino vote preferences. The Clintons have now campaigned nationally for the Latino vote since 1992. In 2007, Hillary Clinton named a Latina Democratic consultant, Patti Solis Doyle, as her national campaign manager. Further, she received early Latino endorsements from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, Sen. Robert Menendez in New Jersey and many other prominent Latinos across the country. In contrast, Obama, who has courted the Latino vote vigorously over the last week, has 16 years of ground to make up against the Clintons.

Matt A. Barreto, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, Seattle, and Ricardo Ramírez, an assistant professor political science at USC, are leading experts on Latino public opinion and voting patterns and have published more than 20 research articles on Latino voting behavior in leading political science journals.