Commentary: Latinos plays a signficant role in election of Obama
SAN DIEGO -- Remember when the pundits and other political analysts assured us with absolute certainty that Latinos wouldn't support an African-American for president?
I do. In fact, one of the last times we heard that insulting refrain was just after the March 4 primary in Texas, a state where Latinos make up almost 40 percent of Democratic voters.
The experts claimed there was a historical tension between Latinos and African-Americans born of competition that played out everywhere from public schools to prison yards to university campuses to the job market. And they insisted that this brown-black feud would undoubtedly carry into the voting booth. Some amateur anthropologists went further and implied that Latinos were racist because of their Latin American heritage. Of course, that theory ignored the fact these people come from countries that have already elected indigenous presidents, including Benito Juarez in Mexico, Alejandro Toledo in Peru, and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
The experts even offered what they saw as hard evidence that Latinos wouldn't support an African-American -- the fact that Hillary Clinton had so dominated the Latino vote in the Democratic primaries against Barack Obama. Clinton carried Texas, California, Florida, New York, Arizona and New Mexico -- all states with significant Latino populations. Clinton won the Latino vote overall by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. It never occurred to the experts that Latinos were demonstrating loyalty to the Clinton brand, and that once Clinton was no longer in the race, they'd shift that loyalty and back the Democratic brand in the general election.
Of course, the slander about not supporting an African-American was never really about Latinos. The experts were simply projecting onto this ethnic group the anxieties, fears and prejudices being expressed by white voters in Rust Belt states such as Pennsylvania. There, Gov. Ed Rendell, a Clinton supporter, was blunt in acknowledging that many white voters wouldn't support an African-American for president.
So how did Election Day turn out? Obviously, not very well for John McCain and Sarah Palin. But it was a good day for Latinos. Not only did they play a crucial role in the election's outcome, but they also drove a stake through the heart of conventional wisdom.
In his matchup with McCain, Obama won the Latino vote decisively. In fact, he won it by roughly the same margin by which he had lost that vote to Clinton several months earlier.
According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, 9.2 million Latinos were expected to vote in this election. But the turnout may have reached 10 million. That would be about 8 percent of the electorate, a significant showing for a community that represents 14 percent of the U.S. population, much of which has not yet reached voting age.
According to exit polls, Obama won 66 percent of the Latino vote compared to 32 percent for McCain. Moreover, the Latino vote helped Obama carry four battleground states: Colorado, Nevada, Florida and New Mexico. According to an analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center, Obama won 78 percent of the Hispanic vote in New Jersey, 78 percent in Nevada, 74 percent in California and 73 percent in Colorado. He even made significant inroads into the Cuban-American community, a traditional GOP stronghold, in winning 57 percent of the Latino vote in Florida.
There were a multitude of reasons why Latinos rallied around Obama. Many were loyal Democrats who never stray from the party's ticket. Others were disillusioned former supporters of President Bush who decided to show their disappointment by embracing the Democrat. Some, like the Latino reader who wrote me, might have assumed that electing a person of color would somehow benefit all people of color. Many liked Obama's policies and believed his promises. And no doubt many more got caught up in the wave of enthusiasm that also swept up tens of millions of other Americans.
Whatever the reason for their support, Latinos can say they played an important role in helping to elect the nation's first African-American president, and in delivering some of the key states that helped make that happen. Now that America's largest minority has proved the experts wrong, where does it go to get its reputation back?
I know where many of them would like to tell the experts to go.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.