Commentary: A low Hispanic voter turnout will hurt Dems in November

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Judging from the latest polls, and from readers' reactions to my last column on Arizona's immigration law, President Barack Obama will have a hard time getting out the Hispanic vote he badly needs in November to keep his party's control of Congress.

Obama's approval rate among Hispanics has fallen from 64 percent in early June to 54 percent at the end of July, according to a Zogby International poll. A previous Gallup poll shows that while support for Obama among whites and African Americans has remained unchanged in the first five months of this year, it fell among Hispanics from 69 percent to 57 percent over the same period.

What's even more troubling for Democrats, polls show there may be a low turnout from Hispanic voters in November's mid-term elections.

"The projected turnout among Hispanics is not high: There is disappointment in the Obama administration, and disillusionment with the economy, which is the No. 1 issue," says pollster John Zogby.

Pollsters agree that if Hispanics stay home, it will be difficult for the Obama administration to keep both houses of Congress. There are about 70 seats in the House that are up for grabs, most of which are currently held by Democrats, and the Republican Party will need to win only 39 seats to retake the House.

And the Hispanic vote will be critical in some of the states with the most contested elections, including Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona.

"The Hispanic vote is probably the No. 1 issue in terms of whether Democrats retain the House," adds Zogby. "Democrats can't survive if they only get 54 percent of the Hispanic vote."

From what I detect in my small journalistic corner, the Republican anti-immigration camp is much more energized than Democrats' Hispanic pro-immigration camp.

After my July 31 column on the likely impact of a judge's ruling suspending the most draconian parts of Arizona's anti-immigration law, I got an avalanche of readers' comments criticizing my opposition to the law.

At the time of this writing, 225 readers have commented on the column at www.miamiherald.com , the vast majority of whom are passionate supporters of the Arizona law. By comparison, I got only 15 comments from readers of the same column in the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald's website, www.elnuevoherald.com.

Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a center-left think tank, conceded that "the Democrats need the Hispanic vote more than they understand." He added that "the Latino vote in 2010 will be still overwhelmingly Democratic, but it will be a smaller share of the electorate than in the last two elections."

A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee told me that the party has launched a $50 million effort to get out the vote of Hispanics, African Americans, and young people, who may be the most motivated to vote in November. That -- and the fact that Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine is a fluent Spanish speaker -- will help get out the Hispanic vote, they say.

My opinion: Obama faces an uphill battle in November to get anything close to the 67 percent of the Hispanic vote he got in the 2008 election. Of course, there is always the possibility that the Republicans' anti-immigration camp will push for even more xenophobic laws, which would re-energize Hispanic voters to go to the polls in support of Democrats in November. But barring that, Obama will have to spend more time taping TV ads in Spanish -- faking that he speaks the language -- as he did during the 2008 campaign, or he will face a Hispanic voters' debacle.

POST SCRIPTUM: Since many readers who commented on my July 31 column blasted me for failing to point out that they "are not against immigration, but only against illegal immigration," let me state once again that I don't buy that argument.

It's flawed because, under our dysfunctional immigration system, our labor market offers hundreds of thousands of jobs to undocumented workers a year, but only a small fraction of them can get legal immigration visas. That's a recipe for driving people to sneak in without documents, and is the reason why we need comprehensive immigration reform.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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