US presidential hopefuls have done everything to draw support from the Hispanic electorate in the 2008 US presidential campaign. Democrat Barack Obama went as far as translating his slogan “Yes we can” into “Si se puede” to pursue Latino voters in Nevada. On the Republican side, candidates gathered for a debate shown on Hispanic network Univision to answer questions sent in by the Hispanic audience. Hillary Clinton complimented Hispanic candidate Bill Richardson for “his great fairness and courage”, as the latter quit the presidential race without endorsing either candidate. In the ongoing race to the White House, all means are acceptable to become popular among Hispanic voters, the largest minority in the United States with 46.7 million inhabitants or 15% of the US population according to the Pew Hispanic Center. But only 6% of the Latino electorate is eligible to vote.
Many reasons explain this ratio imbalance. “The Hispanics are a dormant minority,” says Claudine Tessier, author of Latino Power: The Rising Influence of the US Hispanic Community for The Chair in American Political and Economic Studies University of Montreal. “The Hispanic electorate is the only community which is going to expand rapidly in the next few years,” according to Tessier. “Political analysts are well aware of this fact, which is why candidates have to pay close attention to them.”
Today, a third of the Hispanic population is under the age of 18 and thus cannot vote. “Born in the 1990’s, they represent the second-generation of Hispanic immigrants,” says Richard Fry from the Pew Hispanic Center, based in Washington D.C. “Which implies that in the next few years they’ll be eligible voters.”
But it’s not the only reason. Some 12 million Hispanic immigrants are not naturalized, another reason which explains the low percentage of Latino voters. Since they’re not US citizens, they don’t have a say in this election. “This figure could evolve depending on the candidates’ immigration policies,” says Tessier. The remaining 18.2 million are eligible to vote, but their names don’t figure on the electoral lists, according to the Hispanic Pew Center. “They must become aware of their political rights; they must register and vote,” adds Tessier. These constantly evolving factors are clearly going to make an impact on the level of Hispanic participation in the upcoming election. “It could be close to 6.5% in the 2008 presidential election,” predicts Richard Fry.
“Today we protest, tomorrow we vote”
The Latinos play a crucial role in certain states like California, New Mexico, Arizona and New Jersey. In the 2004 presidential election, US President George W. Bush had a single point lead in New Mexico. In Florida, where 14% of the electorate is Hispanic, he won with five points. At a national level, 40% of the Hispanic electorate voted for Bush. “The Latinos were in favour of George W. Bush’s conservative values, his tax cut plan and his anti-Castro policies” says Annick Fourcier, director of the Research Centre of North American History (CRHNA) in Paris. In 2001, Bush was one of the first presidents to address the Hispanic population in Spanish during the ‘Cinco de Mayo’ (5th of May), a day of national celebrations in Mexico.
Hispanic support for Republicans has fallen in the past year, especially after the outgoing president signed the Secure Fence Act in October 2006 authorising the construction of a long border wall along the Mexican border. A Pew Hispanic Center survey reveals only 23% of Hispanics support the Republicans compared to 28% in 2006. “Hispanic voters are undecided (swing voters) unlike the African-American voters who are in favour of the Democrats,” says Fourcier. Latest figures show Hispanic support for Hillary Clinton: in Florida, she won 59% of the Hispanic votes while Obama won only 30%.
But the Latinos, originally from some twelve different countries, are not a homogeneous group. “The Cubans in Florida support Republicans while the Porto Ricans are favorable to Democrats. Even Catholicism isn’t a binding factor because many have converted to Evangelical Protestantism. According to Claudine Tessier, Hispanic political power will come into play over the debate on immigration. In 2005, they expressed themselves loud and clear during immigration protests with the slogan “Today we protest, tomorrow we vote”.