“Si, se puede,” once again rings out in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. El Valle as it is known to those of us living here, hasn’t heard the phrase since the days of Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.
This time, “Si, se puede” or, in the Obama lexicon, “Yes, we can” is the new slogan for Senator Barack Obama (D. Ill.) running for the Democrat nomination for President. And chasing him with blood in her eye is Senator Hillary Clinton (D. N.Y.) who has lost the last 11 races.
Obama is a phenomenon not seen in South Texas for decades. A year ago, there was one front runner and presumed nominee: Hillary Clinton. She knew it, the Republicans knew it, and the Democrats knew it. But apparently someone forgot to tell Barack Obama. And therein lays the tale of the current race in this part of the country.
The Rio Grande Valley is approximately 85% Hispanic and in the last national election, Hispanics constituted some 20% of the votes cast state wide. These votes went largely to Democrats despite a small but noticeable surge of votes for Bush in 2004 over his 2000 performance. It is these votes, as well as traditional Hispanic Democrats that Obama and Clinton are desperately going after and they well may top 25% of the eligible electorate in Texas this year.
South Texas Democrats tend to lean towards Clinton. The Clintons have made a number of trips to the valley collecting IOUs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. This from MSAs such as McAllen-Edinburg-Mission which is the poorest MSA in the Nation with Brownsville-Harlingen coming in next to poorest. Both MSA’s are in the Rio Grande Valley and both have huge Hispanic populations. Obama has his work cut out for him, but he seems to be producing a crack in that tough Clinton shell.
Clinton appeared at the Dodge Arena in Hidalgo County, a local sports/show arena and though it holds more than 6,000 people, it seemed to be only half full. Obama on the other hand, appeared at the University of Texas-Pan American (UT-PA) in Edinburg, Texas and according to one eye-witness the lines stretched from practically one side of the campus across to the other. When she asked “What are you in line for,” she was told “We’re waiting to see Obama.” To capitalize on this, Obama supporters were handing out “early voting” locations, one of which happened to be at the University Library. (Full Disclosure, the eye-witness was my wife who teaches at UT-PA)
Obama arrived in the Rio Grande Valley from his debate in Austin with Clinton fresh, upbeat and rearing to go. He met with selected students from South Texas College and UT-PA and offered his version of pandering to students. Many in the selected audience as well as in the later rally wanted to know “how they would be able to pay for college.” Obama was ready with an answer; give each student $4000.00 per year in exchange for some form of community service. The students of course, looking to Uncle Sam and Big Government for their answers lapped it up with seldom a contrary word.
And, speaking of the debate in Austin, one must acknowledge that Austin is the single most liberal city in Texas and is sometimes so left leaning it is called “Moscow on the Colorado.” Clinton needed a knockout blow against Obama, and she didn’t get it. She once again brought out the tired zinger that Obama’s change amounts to Xeroxes of others materials, ignoring her own Xerox moments, and was booed for her efforts. This is not the way to score decisively in a debate.
But even the Hispanic vote is not a for sure thing for the Clinton campaign especially after the UT-Austin debate. State Rep. Aaron Peña who is both a powerhouse in the Rio Grande Valley AND is a Clinton supporter noted on Friday at the University of Texas – Pan American rally for Obama that it may well be the people who make the final decision. Peña also noted that Thursday night’s debate was a turning point and that “…it will become increasingly evident very soon who is going to win this primary.”
When all is said and done, Clinton most likely will hang on to her front runner status among Hispanics, but that doesn’t mean that she can rest easy. Texas has about 13% African Americans and those are likely to go to Obama by an even larger margin than the Hispanic vote for Clinton. This leaves the white vote and the women’s vote up for grabs. Then too, Ralph Nader’s tossing of his hat into the ring may pull some idealistic independents away from both Obama and Clinton.
To discount the racism and to some extent the sexism that still exists in Texas is to be absolutely foolish. One has to acknowledge that substantial progress has been made, but that more needs to be made. Will Bill Clinton attempt to exploit that as he did in South Carolina? Or will Hillary play the gender card as she has done in the past? Will Obama stumble now that he has pulled ahead by an average of 2.8% in the polls in Texas and has cut Clinton’s lead to 8 points in Ohio? Can Clinton stand to “almost break even” in Texas or win only by a little in Ohio? The answers to these questions may well be the answer to who wins on March 4th.
G.M. Roper blogs at GM’s Corner.