Politics & Government

Economy, anti-immigrant rhetoric drove Latinos to Obama

WASHINGTON — As Cecilia Khan registered hundreds of new Latino voters in western Nevada this year, she heard the same handful of concerns over and over again.

Latinos told her that they were upset that the downturn hammering the U.S. economy had hit their communities especially hard. They also were up in arms over what they perceived as anti-immigrant rhetoric from some Republican leaders.

"Many Latinos had voted for (President) Bush before because of conservative values around abortion and related ideas," Khan said. "But now that we've been hit like this, the economic issues are taking over."

Those feelings helped fuel a dramatic shift of Latino support to President-elect Barack Obama, not only in Nevada but also in battleground states such as Florida and North Carolina, analysts and campaign workers said.

Nationwide, 67 percent of Latinos voted for Obama this week, an 11 percentage-point gain over Latino support for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004, according to the research firm Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International. That increase far surpassed the rise in African-American and white support for the Democratic ticket from four years ago.

Nationally, 43 percent of whites and 95 percent of African-Americans voted for Obama, according to Edison Media.

The jump was even more dramatic in Florida, where 57 percent of Latinos cast their ballots for Obama, compared with 44 percent who backed Kerry, according to the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center. In Nevada, 78 percent of Latinos voted for Obama, 18 percentage points more than what Kerry won four years ago.

It's a shift that one Republican aide said had erased the gains the party had made during the Bush years in winning over more Latino voters.

"Latinos are justifiably angry at a faction of the right wing of the Republican Party that engaged in anti-immigrant rhetoric," said Ana Navarro, who advised Republican presidential candidate John McCain campaign on immigration and other national issues. "We have a lot of bridges to mend and a lot of wounds to heal."

The result also reflects the wide preference Latinos had shown for Obama over McCain on issues including job creation, crime fighting and the war in Iraq, according to Pew surveys conducted over the summer.

"We also saw that the immigration debate was moving Hispanic voters," said Mark Lopez, the Pew Hispanic Center's associate director. "There is an underlying sense that the debate about immigration is a debate about Hispanics."

That's upset Republicans such as Navarro. She said the heated rhetoric of Republican leaders such as Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, who called for limiting immigration, undermined years of Republican work to win over Latinos.

Even McCain backed away during the campaign from a bipartisan bill he co-authored that would have legalized some undocumented immigrants, created guest-worker programs and beefed up U.S. border enforcement.

The country's economic problems, however, still topped the list of concerns for Latino voters, especially for low-income families with the smallest financial cushions to absorb job and income losses, said Freddy Balsera, a media adviser to the Obama campaign.

Obama tapped into such worries in Latino-targeted advertisements addressing the economic meltdown, with the candidate even speaking Spanish in some of the spots.

Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said that record numbers of Latinos registered to vote because of such economic concerns.

"It was a window of opportunity for us," Baca said. "Our community showed its true power at the polls, and they're going to have a huge impact on future elections."

The Republican challenge lies in winning over more new Latino voters, even while the party's brand fades among the population.

That task is crucial in Florida, where newcomers of Puerto Rican descent in central Florida are counter-balancing traditionally Republican Cuban American voters in Miami, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R- Fla., said in an e-mailed statement.

"The Republican Party needs to do a much more aggressive outreach effort to win over Puerto Rican, Colombian and Venezuelan communities, as they are the fastest rising Latino groups in Florida," Ros-Lehtinen wrote. "We can and must do this."

For this election, however, first-time Latino voters such as Silver Spring, Md., resident Jose Villegas broke heavily for Obama.

The 23-year-old said business has plummeted in recent months at the perfume and cosmetics counter he runs in a small store in Washington, D.C., that's frequented by immigrants from El Salvador.

Rising fuel prices have also hit his pocketbook, especially during his long commutes to school. Such economic problems not only drove him but also his brother and many of his friends to the polls for the first time.

"To me, it didn't matter before who was the president," Villegas said. "But now, I know it definitely does matter."


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