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TIM RUTTEN

L.A.'s political predictor -- the Latino vote

November 12, 2008|TIM RUTTEN

America has long scouted Los Angeles for cultural signposts to the new. The results of last week's election may have put the city on the country's political cutting edge as well.

Analysts parsing the components of President-elect Barack Obama's decisive victory have begun to believe that the campaign ended in a "realigning election," reshaping the nation's political map like the ones that brought Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan to power. If that is the case, then several of the trends that pushed Obama to victory showed themselves first in L.A.

One is the continuing movement of affluent, better-educated voters and suburban residents into the Democratic column -- a trend that has been visible in L.A. for years. Suburban voters went strongly for Obama nationally and overwhelmingly in Los Angeles.

Another clearly marked signpost to the future was Latino participation, which has been growing in Los Angeles for decades but which surged to historic levels across the country in this election cycle, according to an unusually comprehensive exit poll conducted by Loyola Marymount University's Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles under the direction of Fernando Guerra. No one predicted at the campaign's outset that more than six out of 10 Latino voters would cast their ballots for the first African American president, but they did.

The significance of that landslide was amplified by the fact that Latinos are clustered in the Western states that Obama pried from the red column. Seventy-three percent of Colorado's Latinos went for the Democratic candidate, as did 76% of Nevada's and 69% of New Mexico's. More striking, Latinos helped deliver to Obama two of the three Sunbelt states crucial to Reagan's first realigning victory. In California, 77% of Latinos went for the Democrat, as did 57% of Florida's. Even the third, Texas, seems to be teetering on the blue precipice.

It's hard to believe that little more than a decade ago, many analysts were predicting that Latinos, mainly Catholic and socially conservative, would be irresistibly drawn into the Republican orbit, much as Italian Americans of similar background had been after World War II in Eastern states.

So what happened? Two things: immigration and organized labor. Beginning in 1994, when then-California Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, made support for Proposition 187 -- which denied health, education and other benefits to undocumented immigrants -- a centerpiece of his reelection campaign, Latinos across the country have been moving as far from Republican candidates as their legs will carry them.

To see just how far, The Times asked Loyola's Guerra and his associate, Jennifer Magnabosco, to break out the votes of Protestant -- mainly evangelical -- and immigrant Latinos who voted in Los Angeles on Nov. 4. The notion was that these two groups would make up the most socially conservative members of their ethnic community.

The Loyola exit poll found that only 18% of L.A. Latinos voted for John McCain; just half of them were Protestants. That was true even though 47% of Latino Protestants favored a ballot measure that required that parents of teenagers seeking abortion be notified, and an overwhelming 61% favored the ban on same-sex marriage.

So much for the link between religiously based Latino social conservatism and Republican sympathy, but what about newly naturalized citizens? According to the Loyola survey, 21% of all foreign-born L.A. voters backed McCain, but only 18% of foreign-born Latinos did. In fact, Latinos who were born outside the U.S. went for Obama by a slightly greater margin than native-born Latino Americans -- 78% to 76%. Loyola's poll also turned up something else that ought to concern GOP strategists: In a campaign marked by widespread indecision into the eleventh hour, 86% of U.S.-born Latino Angelenos and 77% of naturalized Latino citizens reported they decided to vote for Obama more than two weeks before election day.

Loyola's findings also tend to support research done by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center that shows Latino social conservatism is at its apogee in the immigrant generation -- about four of 10 Latinos in the U.S. are foreign born -- and declines until it becomes indistinguishable from the attitudes of white Americans in the third generation. Although 56% of L.A.'s Latino voters favored parental notification, only 40% of the native born did. Similarly, 60% of naturalized voters endorsed the ban on same-sex marriage, and 51% of the native born opposed it.

If you're a Republican strategist, you need to weigh all this against two facts: By 2050, according to the Census Bureau, one in four Americans will be a Latino. One of the other significant trends in this election was the surge in young voters; one third of the voters under 29 were members of minority groups, mainly Latinos.

Political history is a funny thing. Who would have guessed that Pete Wilson would be one of the architects of Barack Obama's victory?

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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