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Latinos Make Strong Showing at the Polls

November 08, 1996|PATRICK J. McDONNELL and GEORGE RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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.

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