Latino Vote Could Decide the Election

Barack Obama and John McCain are both in hot pursuit of the Latino vote. The presidential candidates are speaking to three different Latino organizations this summer: The National Association of Latino Elected Officials, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and -- next week -- the National Council of La Raza.

Yet, when Washington pundits discuss the Latino vote, it only shows how clueless most of them are on the subject. Apparently, for much of the elite media, their expertise in all things Latino doesn’t extend beyond the No. 4 combo plate at the District’s newest Tex-Mex joint.

Here are some essentials you need to know about the much-discussed, and yet poorly understood, Latino vote -- and how it could help decide the 2008 election:

• The reason Obama and McCain are being so aggressive in pursuing the more than 9 million Latinos expected to vote in November is because neither candidate has a lock on them. And that’s because Hillary Clinton is on the sidelines. Clinton did very well with Latino voters -- undeservedly so, I would argue. But, nonetheless, many of those Hillaristas don’t seem all that eager to switch to Obama in the general election. Besides, McCain is no pushover when it comes to appealing to Latinos, having earned between 65-70 percent in his Senate campaigns in Arizona. This can go either way.

• It’s not the numbers. Certainly 9 million voters is nothing to sneer at, but the reason that Latinos are heavily courted has less to do with how many there are than with how unpredictable they can be. This is a population that, while inclined to register Democratic, has shown a willingness to vote for moderate Republicans who reach out to them. If they were solidly Democratic and never splintered off, they’d be marginalized -- written off by one party and taken for granted by the other. As it stands, candidates from both of the major political parties want to get on their dance card.

• Immigration is just one issue among many that Latinos care about -- except when it isn’t. Under normal circumstances, Latinos might pick a president based on his stand on a host of issues, from Iraq to the economy to health care. But this isn’t a normal election year. With nativists and rightwing opportunists having poisoned the national mood and given the immigration debate a bitter anti-Hispanic flavor, many Hispanics are itching for a chance to say: “No mas!” So they tell pollsters that immigration is near the top of the list of issues that will decide who they pick as president.

• Candidates ignore all this at their peril. It’s no different than the fuss that was made over the Irish and Italians in the Northeast when they started to come of age politically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. People are the same the world over. They want responsive government that solves problems but also knows when to get out of the way and let the individual succeed. They want to be asked for their support, and not have it taken for granted. And, above all, they want to be treated with respect -- especially at a time when they and people like them are being insulted, picked on, and treated as scapegoats.

Barack Obama and John McCain deserve credit -- not just for going after the Latino vote but doing so in a manner that is informative, useful, and substantive. This isn’t the old days when politicians would just hand out tacos and pose with mariachis. Latinos know how important their votes are, and they expect candidates to act in ways that reflect that.