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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Latino Vote Still Lags Its Potential

The Southwest influx leans Democratic but is not registering fast enough to help Kerry.

September 25, 2004|Ronald Brownstein and Kathleen Hennessey | Times Staff Writers

LAS VEGAS — Block by block, house by house, Cesar Auyb and Irene Rodriguez are literally changing the complexion of politics in Nevada. But the change is coming slowly.

Since May, the two have been on leave from their jobs in Las Vegas casinos to work as organizers for a union-sponsored, nonprofit organization trying to increase voter registration among the state's exploding Latino population. On a bright and breezy morning last weekend, each was diligent and cheerful as they pursued potential voters in a heavily Latino neighborhood west of the downtown strip.

But in an hour of door knocking, each registered just one new voter. Everyone else they encountered was ineligible to register, many because they had not taken the steps to become U.S. citizens, even though they met the legal requirements.

In miniature, the experience of Auyb and Rodriguez shows how the continuing influx of Latinos is reshaping the partisan balance across the desert Southwest -- and why the transformation may not arrive fast enough to help Sen. John F. Kerry erase President Bush's advantage in the region this November.

Slowly but inexorably, activists across the region are moving more Latinos to the polls; even with the difficulties experienced by Auyb, Rodriguez and other canvassers, their group, the Citizenship Project, has registered 3,000 new Latino voters in Las Vegas this year.

Such progress is gradually strengthening Democratic prospects not only in Nevada and New Mexico, swing states in recent presidential elections, but also in Colorado and Arizona, which the GOP has dominated. In all four states, Latinos make up a larger share of voters today than in 1992. And they are a reliably Democratic block.

Experts in both parties agree that eventually, this demographic trend could give the Southwest the largest concentration of tossup states outside of the industrial Midwest.

But Latinos are still not registering and voting in numbers large enough to maximize their influence. As a result, in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, Latinos represent a smaller share of the vote -- in some cases much smaller -- than their share of the population, according to exit polls on election days.

Although Latinos are growing more important with each election, they are unlikely to become a decisive factor in these states until they overcome the barriers to political participation that plagued the canvassers in Las Vegas.

"The pool of potential voters lags way behind the growth in the Hispanic population," said Maria Cardona, director of the Latino outreach project at the New Democratic Network, a centrist Democratic group.

That gap means that Latinos, who could tip any of the Southwest's four battleground states to Kerry, are more likely to play a supporting rather than starring role in this year's fight for the region's 29 electoral votes.

"The longer-term implications for Latino empowerment in what we are seeing are great," said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at UC Irvine who specializes in Latino politics. "But they aren't necessarily in this election."

Still, with most Latinos in the Southwest leaning Democratic, local Republicans recognize that if they cannot improve their support within this bloc, their political position likely will grow increasingly insecure in these states.

"We are getting out into the community and going places where the Republican Party never went," said Jose Esparza, chairman of the Arizona Latino Republican Assn. "For whatever reason, 10 years ago that wasn't happening."

The impact of the region's changing demography is evident in the increased attention from the presidential campaigns. From 1968 through 1988, the Southwest was so reliably Republican in the national vote that it was rarely contested.

But Bill Clinton, in his two White House victories, carried Nevada and New Mexico twice and Arizona and Colorado once each. In 2000, Bush won Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, while Al Gore carried New Mexico. And neither candidate won more than 51% of the vote in any of the four states.

This year, each state has been closely contested. Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns have purchased English and Spanish-language television ads in all four. Although the Massachusetts senator recently stopped buying TV time -- in either language -- in Arizona and Colorado, the Democratic National Committee has continued to broadcast ads in both.

The New Democratic Network has spent heavily on a Spanish-language television advertising campaign in the region stressing historic ties between Latinos and Democrats. And Republican outreach efforts are burgeoning in all four states.

"It's probably something that should have happened years ago, but I'm glad the national party is putting a priority on this," said Lionel Rivera, the Republican mayor of Colorado Springs, Colo.

The latest public polls have shown Bush staking out a solid lead in Arizona, ahead more narrowly in Nevada and in tight races with Kerry in New Mexico and Colorado.

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