[url=http://www.HispanicOnline.com]http://www.HispanicOnline.com[/url] | By ANA RADELAT
Lalena Lopez has never voted, but plans to do so this year. But like thousands of Hispanics in key swing states, she hasn’t made up her mind about whether she’ll vote for Democratic candidate John Kerry or help give President Bush a second term.
“I haven’t been able to watch enough television to know enough about the candidates,” says Lopez, 34, a receptionist at an employment agency in Pueblo, Colorado, and the mother of two.
But Lopez is determined to vote this year and is embarrassed she hasn’t before.
“There’s no excuse. I just haven’t done it,” she says.
Lopez is just the type of voter that the Democrats and Republican parties are spending millions of dollars to woo in unprecedented efforts this year. As a Hispanic in one of five battleground states—Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida—that could determine who lives in the White House next year, Lopez is the target of a barrage of television and radio commercials and dozens of voter registration drives.
According to a series of polls and studies, more Hispanics than ever beforeóup to 8 millionówill go to the polls on Nov. 2. Nearly a third of them identify themselves as independent voters or members of a party other than the Democratic Party or the GOP, a recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center said.
The increasing political independence of Latinos, and the large numbers of undecided and unregistered Hispanics, is making the Kerry-Edwards campaign and the Bush-Cheney camp pull out all stops to make inroads into the Hispanic community this year.
But Lopez doesn’t seem to recognize the gargantuan efforts to win her favor. She hasn’t seen any of the television advertisements for both Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts,
or Bush on Spanish-language television station Univision running in Colorado.
But she is aware of the controversial English-language advertisement Bush ran that had the destruction of the World Trade towers as a backdrop. That sparked her political sensibilities because her brother-in-law was in the second plane to hit the towers.
“How can you use Sept. 11 in a campaign?” she asks.
While Lopez has a special reason to focus on politics this year, she is also concerned about issues that have been determined to be at the top of the Hispanic voters’ agenda. The study by the Pew Hispanic Center backed what many believed: Hispanics are more concerned about education than any other voter group. Fifty-four percent said education will be extremely important in determining their vote for president this year. Fifty-one percent said the economy, jobs, health care and Medicare will be extremely important.
Latinos are somewhat more dubious about the decision to go to war than the general population, the Pew study said. Fifty-four percent of the registered Latino voters polled by Pew in July said the Bush Administration deliberately misled the American public about how big a threat Iraq was to the United States.
But Lopez says the schooling of her children, aged 15 and seven, is on the top of her mind. She also worries about what would happen to her family if her husband Francisco loses the health care coverage his employer, a chemical plant in Pueblo, provides.
“What if we were to lose that, what would we do?” Lopez asks. Bush and Kerry are aware of Hispanic concerns and address those issues in campaign stops and commercials targeted at Latinos.
“The battleground voter is the Latino,” says Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic pollster in Florida.
To help Kerry independently of his campaign, the New Democrat Network (NDN) has poured millions of dollars into Spanish-language advertising in Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona. These states are considered in play because Bush or his previous rival, Vice President Al Gore, won them by less than 5 percent of the vote in 2000. In contrast, other states with sizable Latino populations are already firmly in the Republican or Democratic campóTexas is expected to vote for Bush and California and New York for Kerry, and Latinos in those states won’t be wooed as passionately.
NDN advertisements in the Hispanic battleground states, on television and radio, bash Bush’s No Child Left Behind education policy as ineffectual and remind Hispanics of their long tradition of favoring the Democratic Party. One features a series of Hispanic lawmakers to underscore the point that there are many more Democratic Latino elected officials than Republican ones.
NDN Vice President María Cardona criticizes Gore’s efforts to reach Hispanics. One mistake, Cardona says, was that Gore failed to run any Spanish-language ads in Florida.
Bush, a former Texas governor who knows how to stump in Hispanic communities, won about 35 percent of the Latino vote in 2000, unprecedented for a Republican presidential candidate.
“He knows how to speak to the Hispanic voter … and they don’t know who we (Democrats) are,” Cardona says. “Our party is still falling short.”
Bush needs to keep the gains his “compassionate conservatism” earned him in the Hispanic community in the Latino battleground states. As of mid-summer, his campaign spent $1.1 million in Spanish language ads. One, which seems targeted at new Hispanic voters, exhibits the flags of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua before dissolving into the Stars and Stripes. It ends “Presidente BushóNos Conocemos.”
Other Bush ads seem to target the growing numbers of Hispanic entrepreneurs with criticism of Kerry’s opposition to the permanent abolition of the inheritance tax and with charges that the Democrat plans to raise taxes on middle-income Latinos.
“We are reaching out to all Latinos from all walks of life,” says Bush-Cheney campaign spokeswoman Sharon Castillo.
Hispanic voters polled by Pew gave Kerry a 2-1 advantage over Bush. But in Florida, Bush won 151,000 more Hispanic votes than Gore in 2000, thanks largely to Cuban Americans angry with President Clinton’s decision to return little Cuban rafter Elián González back to his father in Cuba.
Democrats hope these Cuban voters won’t go to the polls in the numbers they did in 2000. They also hope Bush’s new measures to tighten the longstanding U.S. economic embargo, an effort to win favor among exile hard-liners, boomerangs. There’s evidence that moderate Cubans, who tend to be later arrivals to the United States, are angry over Bush’s move to restrict cash remittances and exile trips to the island.
The Kerry-Edwards campaign also hopes growing numbers of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians and other Hispanics in Florida, who unlike the Cuban exiles tend to vote Democratic, will help them win this key state.
But the Bush-Cheney campaign has backed the Senate efforts of Mel Martínez, a Cuban American who was Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development before he decided to run for Congress. Republicans hope Martínez’s name on the ballot will turn out Cuban Americans and maybe even strengthen their hand with Puerto Rican voters in Floridaówho showed Martínez some measure of support when he was mayor of Orlando.
The Kerry-Edwards campaign has also hitched its wagon to a popular Senate candidate. In Colorado, Democrats hope Attorney General Ken Salazar’s Senate candidacy will energize Latinosówho accounted for nearly 20 percent of the population but only 7 percent of the vote in 2002óto vote Democratic in November.
In addition, independent groups have fanned out over the battleground states with voter registration drives to try to make Latino votes a force in politics this year. Newly registered Latinos trend Democratic and might help Kerry if their numbers swell.
The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project has an ambitious, $5 million project to register Latino voters in Colorado and other states where Hispanics may make a difference.
The group hopes to register 12,000 new Latino voters in Coloradoóand nag them to go to the polls until Election Day.
“Seventy to 80 percent of new voters turn out with targeting,” says SVREP Vice President Lydia Camarillo.
Kerry is also helped by key Democrats out west, especially New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, whose job it is to make sure New Mexico, won by Gore by a mere 366 votes, remains Democratic. Richardson’s Moving American Forward campaign is registering Hispanic voters in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Florida.
But the Republican National Committee has countered by rolling out “Reggie the Registration Rig,” an 18-wheel truck with video games, big screen televisions and a karaoke station, through the Latino battleground states to sign up new GOP voters.
In Arizona, where more than 25 percent of the population is Hispanic, Latinos accounted for only 12 percent of the vote in 2000. Thanks to all the attention from the candidatesóand the divisive issue of illegal immigrationóthis year those numbers may change.
Anti-immigration groups there recently won their fight to have a proposition on the ballot that would deny state service to the undocumented.
Proposition 200, or Protect Arizona Now, is expected to galvanize Latinos in that state much like a similar measure known as Proposition 187 did in California in 1994.
The Bush campaign has tried to distance itself from Proposition 200 by saying it is a state issue. So has Kerry.
Camarillo said the anti-immigrant proposition is likely to be approved by Arizona voters, but its presence on the ballot in Arizona may boost Latino participation in the electionóand that could help Kerry.
In Nevada, the growing numbers of Latinos in labor unions that provide workers for the state’s casinos and tourism trade has put that traditionally Republican state in play. Latino turnout could increase there because of a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage.
In any case, the way Latinos vote in November will be scrutinized like never before. And the special attention they’re receiving from the parties this year may lead to more clout. “Latinos are better off and more empowered if both parties are fighting for them,” notes one Bush-Cheney campaign official.