Commentary: For Latinos, 2012 election was a turning point

The Miami HeraldNovember 11, 2012 

OPPENHEIMER ANDRES MCT

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for The Miami Herald.

AL DIAZ — MCT/Miami Herald

President Barack Obama’s reelection was a huge victory for Latino voters, one that will transform U.S. presidential elections for the foreseeable future.

Obama’s overwhelming 71-27 percent victory margin among Latino voters nationwide Tuesday means that no U.S. presidential candidate in coming years will be able to turn his back on Hispanics, or adopt agendas widely unpopular among Latinos, as Republican candidate Gov. Mitt Romney did in this campaign.

As we predicted in this column dozens of times, most recently in our last pre-election column on Sunday, Romney will go down in history as the Republican candidate who got the smallest percentage of Latino votes in recent years.

According to exit polls, Romney got only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, much less than the 35 percent that former President George W. Bush received in 2000, or the 40 percent that Bush got in 2004, or the 31 percent that former Republican candidate Sen. John McCain got in 2008.

Romney’s disastrous performance among Hispanics, which was one of the key reasons why he lost the election, shouldn’t come as a surprise: whether it’s on immigration, healthcare, taxes, education or gun control, he sided with the extreme right wing of the Republican party, including its xenophobic, anti-immigration zealots.

Although immigration was not the top issue on the minds of Latinos, it mattered. Many know hard-working people who don’t have immigration papers. And Romney’s support for Arizona’s show-me-your-papers law led many to fear that all Latinos — regardless of their immigration status — would be subjected to harassment by local police officers.

It wasn’t just Romney’s positions that irked Latinos. It was his angry tone and dehumanizing references to “illegal aliens” — especially during the primaries — that left a sour taste among Latino audiences.

Romney thought, mistakenly, that he could win this election without the Latino vote.

His campaign’s strategic calculation was that the economy was doing so badly, that a combination of enthusiastic support from white males and high abstention rates from Latinos would combine to win enough votes to win the election.

But he was wrong on both counts: the economy didn’t tank as much as he thought, nor did Latinos stay as home as he hoped. Even among mostly conservative Cuban-American voters in Florida, Obama got an astounding 47 percent of the vote, almost as much as Romney.

Sergio Bendixen, Obama’s top pollster for Latino voters, told me that Latinos made up a record 10 percent of U.S. voters in 2012, up from 9 percent in 2008, 7 percent in 2004 and 6 percent in 2000.

More importantly, Bendixen predicts that the percentage of Latino voters will more than double to 25 percent of the voting population over the next decade.

It may not be an outlandish forecast: we may soon see an immigration reform that will bring about millions of new Latino voters, legal immigration is not going to stop, and one cannot rule out that Puerto Rico will become a U.S. state in the next 10 years.

The 2012 election not only officially propelled Latinos into a decisive voting bloc in swing states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada, but also allowed Latinos to increase their presence in the U.S. Congress from 24 to 28 members of the House of Representatives, and from two to three members of the Senate.

“This is something of a watershed moment,” says Gary M. Segura, head of the LatinoDecisions/Impremedia polling firm. “For the first time in history, the Latino vote can plausibly claim to have been decisive.”

My opinion: Obama won overwhelmingly among Latinos in part because Romney’s Republican party has shifted so far to the extreme right on most issues that many Hispanics — more than voting for Obama — voted against Romney.

Now, the Republican Party will have to learn something from its 2012 defeat and shift to the center — or it can say “adios” to the White House for many years to come.

With an estimated 50,000 Latinos reaching the voting age of 18 every month and growing numbers voting, Hispanics have become a formidable political force.

Whether Latinos continue voting solidly Democrat or split their vote, they have made their official debut as a decisive electoral factor.

The 2012 election may be the last in which one party turned its back on most Latino voters, and in which organizers failed to appoint a Latino journalist to moderate a presidential debate, to ensure that Latino and Latin American issues become part of the agenda.

The Latino giant proved to not be asleep. That’s good for Latinos, good for Latin America and good for the United States.

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