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How the voting shook both parties

Clinton tapped into the growing political clout of the state's Latinos. Endorsements were important.

February 07, 2008|Cathleen Decker and Phil Willon | Times Staff Writers

In the end, Hillary Rodham Clinton's California campaign was carried to victory by voters like Maria Hernandez of Boyle Heights, who cast her first vote for Bill Clinton and returned Tuesday to do the same for his wife.

Clinton's victory -- a romp compared with some of the predictions just before election day -- rested on the twin pillars of women and Latinos, groups that overlapped in the person of voters like Hernandez.

The campaign put up a fierce fight for women who vote by mail, calling and re-calling until they turned in their ballots. And then Clinton's aides aimed their organizational firepower at the Latino community.

The efforts paid off. Women backed Clinton 59% to 36%, contributing to a giant gender gap compared with men, who sided narrowly with Barack Obama, according to an exit poll by a consortium of news organizations.

Latinos went for Clinton by a 2-1 margin. What made that margin even more significant was that Latinos made up a record proportion of the electorate. Three in 10 of those who voted in the Democratic primary were Latino, the exit poll said, almost double the proportion in 2004.

Latino political strength has grown substantially over the last several elections in California, pushed along by the growing Latino population. In 2000, only 7% of the primary electorate was Latino, according to a Times exit poll.

The increased power can also be seen in the number of Latino elected officials in the state, many of whom endorsed Clinton and provided her with an influential base of support.

Clinton -- who had difficulty among California's non-Latino white voters, splitting them with Obama -- was hoping to press her advantage among women and Latinos in future states. Of the major states with primaries still to come, however, none but Texas, which votes March 4, has a particularly large number of Latino voters.

For Clinton, the California victory marked a reassertion of the power of a traditional campaign, after weeks in which the insurgent, if well-funded, Obama effort steadily cut into her advantage in pre-election polls.

Clinton started with an advantage among three important overlapping sectors of the Democratic Party in California: women, Latinos and voters with lower incomes. She has run well among those groups in other states, and the campaign's goal was to keep the streak going.

One target was mail-in voters, who tend to be more white, more female and more Northern Californian by residence than voters overall. Women in particular were targeted with mailers, beginning in November. Campaign officials mined data at each registrar's office to determine who had voted and who had not.

Making more than 1 1/2 million phone calls, "we literally vote-by-vote rounded up" those voters, said Ace Smith, Clinton's campaign director in California.

While that effort was targeting mail-in voters, another was pressing Latinos, who had backed former President Clinton during his administration, to side with his wife. If gender helped Hillary Clinton among the women mail-in voters, tradition helped her with Latino voters.

Clinton's early endorsements included United Farm Workers icon Dolores Huerta, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. In the closing days of the campaign, Los Angeles County supervisor Gloria Molina endorsed her. She also had in her corner a number of popular Latina members of Congress.

Among most voters, endorsements carry little weight. But the Latino endorsements deepened Clinton's volunteer ranks and offered her the borrowed credibility of people who had cachet where it counted.

"There is still a lot of trust and reverence for that community that does not exist in other communities anymore," Smith said. And, since many of the Latino members of Congress and the Legislature are women, "being a woman of stature is a huge positive," he said.

Clinton's emphasis on healthcare and the economy also helped, allowing her to trade on the prosperity that many Latinos enjoyed during her husband's administration.

The Obama campaign, by contrast, aired Spanish-language radio ads promoting his support for issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. That was a "classic Northeastern assumption" that licenses were the primary concern of Latinos, according to Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC.

"It's not. I think he would have had much more traction on issues like education, or the loss of jobs . . . issues that resonate with Latino homeowners," Pachon said.

Obama had some influential Latino supporters, particularly Maria Elena Durazo, head of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. She said the Clinton name still carries heft with Latinos because of the relative prosperity of the 1990s.

"There's no doubt we made tremendous progress in the Latino community, but there was no way we could close the gap. It was just too deep," Durazo said.

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