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Bustamante Needs New Latino Pitch

August 28, 2003|Karen Malmuth Kaufmann | Karen Malmuth Kaufmann is an assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. Her research specializes in Latino public opinion and voting behavior.

If Latinos can be rallied to the polls Oct. 7, their votes may prove decisive. But they won't turn out because they want to help Gov. Gray Davis keep his job. They will vote because they hope to elect California's first Latino governor in more than a century.

Indeed, the key to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's electoral strategy -- high Latino turnout -- just may put the final nail in Davis' coffin, with Latinos voting to remove a sitting governor who has failed them and to replace him with one of their own.

But if it is to happen, Latino voters must first be persuaded to vote. In general, Latinos in California participate at lower rates in elections than their Anglo counterparts; consider the 2002 gubernatorial race, in which they represented just 10% of those voting despite constituting 15% of registered voters.

Many analysts believe that having Bustamante on the ballot will generate higher levels of interest among Latinos, comparable to the Los Angeles mayoral race in 2001 in which Antonio Villaraigosa drew a record number of Latinos to the polls.

But Bustamante's presence alone may not be enough. Exceptional levels of Latino turnout in California and elsewhere are typically linked to successful grass-roots mobilizing efforts. As researchers from the University of Texas have demonstrated, Latino voters turn out at much higher than normal rates when they are contacted by Latino organizations but are no more likely to vote when contacted by political parties or other non-Latino groups.

Luckily for Bustamante, Latino organizations like the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project seem committed to launching an aggressive mobilization campaign in this election. With a Latino candidate for governor and the racially charged Proposition 54 on the ballot, other Latino community groups will probably be out in force as well, working to bring voters to the polls.

For Bustamante to take advantage of this and win the governorship, he needs to craft a message that will resonate with Latino constituents. He needs to remind them that Davis has failed the Latino community on many policy fronts such as social services, crime and immigration. Bustamante's current strategy -- advising people to vote against the recall in question one but vote for him on question two -- is not the right one. It is too complicated for all voters and doesn't offer Latinos enough reason to go to the polls.

Latinos will not be persuaded to rush to the polls just to save Davis; the governor has cultivated too little goodwill within the Latino community for this to be a realistic prospect. Beyond the state's fiscal crisis, which has created dissatisfaction in all quarters, Davis' refusal last year to sign a bill giving illegal immigrants the right to apply for driver's licenses is but one illustration of why Latinos have so little enthusiasm for him. And though Davis has recently changed course on the license issue, promising to sign new legislation when it reaches his desk, his "death bed conversion" appears wholly disingenuous to many Latino activists.

Despite this, Bustamante continues to play the loyal partisan, assuaging his colleagues within the state party with his public support for Davis. Bustamante's call for party unity may find a following among Anglo Democrats, but it is less likely to impress the Latinos who will be critical to his success. Bustamante and the Democratic Party may believe that Latinos will behave like steadfast partisans first and foremost, but that assumption is unfounded.

Latinos in California are generally reliable Democratic voters. On average, about two-thirds of the Latino electorate supports Democratic candidates in national and statewide elections. When a brethren Latino heads the ticket, Latino voter solidarity typically increases to 75% or 80%. But just because Latinos typically vote for Democrats does not make them strong partisans or committed to the party. Research on Latino political behavior suggests that pan-ethnic solidarity will trump party loyalty.

The "right-wing conspiracy" argument that Davis and the Democratic Party are using to invigorate the partisan rank and file will be mostly lost on Latinos looking to elect one of their own. Partisan outrage isn't going to bring extraordinary numbers of Latino voters to the polls.

If the lieutenant governor wants Latinos to show up Oct. 7, he needs to rally them to his candidacy and his candidacy alone. And if the Democratic Party wants to hold the governorship, perhaps it should look beyond Davis.

Latino activists and community groups will not fight to save Davis when they are so close to having a Latino governor as his replacement. By the end of the Bustamante campaign -- if it's done right -- Latino voters will go to the polls as the swing constituency that defeats Davis and wins the race for the Democrats.

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