Between 5 million and 6 million Latinos are expected to vote Nov. 7. It will be a record. Nevertheless, last summer's prediction of surging Latino political clout has turned out to be pure hype.
The buzz about Latinos as the new "soccer moms" was set off by George W. Bush's novel outreach to Latinos in Texas and fueled by some candidates' unprecedented appearances on Spanish-language TV, in barrio settings and before Latino organizations. Yet, the year of the Latino in politics, which followed a boom of interest in Latino pop stars and the burgeoning Latino market, climaxed at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.
This fall, there has barely been a presidential campaign in places where most Latinos live. The problem is that the three biggest states--California, Texas and New York--where a majority of Latinos live have not been significantly in play. It is bemusing to hear that the presidential campaigns are hunting for Latino votes in places like Milwaukee.
Moreover, Vice President Al Gore and Bush hardly uttered a word about Latino issues in their debates, and key legislative priorities for Latino immigrants were killed by Democrats and Republicans alike from Sacramento to Capitol Hill.
True enough, President Bill Clinton managed to extract some concessions on immigration policy from Republican congressional leaders last week. But it took the president's written threat to veto an essential appropriations bill to produce the compromise.
The distance between Latino political hype and campaign reality is local, as well. The most prominent and expensive House race in the country is being fought in Los Angeles County between candidates killing themselves to win the Armenian vote, despite the fact that registered Latinos greatly outnumber Armenian Americans in the 27th Congressional District.
Feature stories about Latino votes paving the road to the White House have appeared this fall, but Latinos, by and large, stopped getting the royal treatment from the presidential campaigns as soon as the Republican convention ended last July. What happened, basically, is that Gore refused to take the bait. The vice president's campaign was never convinced that it should outbid the unprecedented (for either party) Bush effort for Latino support across the nation.
Ironically, Bush had greater freedom to spotlight Latinos at his convention and during his campaign. He had no trouble selling Republicans on his strategy. The convention could stage-manage its token Latino symbols as it pleased without either weakening the Republican coalition or undercutting outreach to the center.
The Democrats, on the other hand, did not have the luxury of picking young, telegenic, rising Latino political stars to spotlight at their convention. Latino elected officials, 90% of whom are Democrats, don't easily surrender such discretion to party or campaign leaders, and they did not line up behind any one individual to make a high-profile appearance. As far as the Gore campaign was concerned, its candidate had already paid plenty of attention to Latinos before the convention, perhaps even too much, given Gore's Spanglish.
But it suited Republican purposes just fine when Bush and Gore, together with the media, hinted that African Americans had been displaced by Latinos as the country's primary minority group. GOP strategists must have privately rejoiced when African American leaders, concerned about their level of influence in the Gore campaign, forced Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Gore's running mate, to express support for their priority issues at the Democratic convention.
The Gore campaign had no choice but to cave. Compared with Latinos, African Americans made up fully twice as many Democratic convention delegates and will cast twice as many votes nationally on election day. Blacks vote much more consistently Democratic than Latinos, and while that means African American loyalties are not significantly in play, their turnout remains utterly crucial to Democratic fortunes. When Gore strategists looked at the battlefield triangle then defined as stretching from New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the east, to Michigan in the north and Missouri in the south, they saw many times more African American voters than Latino.
The Gore campaign's lack of anxiety about losing Latino support was also evident in the party's handling of Rep. Loretta Sanchez's planned fund-raiser at the Playboy Mansion. The Latina political star of the last two congressional races was publicly threatened with retribution if she held her fund-raiser. Democratic Party leaders even balked at conceding her anything, such as a nominating speech, in exchange for moving it.
More than a few Latino activists groused about their disappointingly low profile at the Democratic convention and the lack of Latinos in the upper echelons of the Gore campaign. But most Latino leaders were too busy pursuing their own agendas for their discontent to gel into a formal protest.