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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Hispanic Vote Up For Grabs
By Mark Silva
September 7, 2003
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The rising voice of Hispanic voters will play a powerful but unpredictable role in the 2004 presidential election.
This once was a vote upon which Democrats could depend. Now, Democratic candidates must court the vote -- competing with suitors who have proven adept at this, the Bush brothers.
Outside of the heavily Republican precincts of Cuban-American voters in South Florida, Hispanic voters traditionally have handed Democrats a winning edge. President Bush successfully blunted that edge in 2000, just as his bilingual brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, amassed an overwhelming vote for re-election last year with the help of free-wheeling Hispanic voters in Central Florida.
"The Hispanic electorate has changed in a very important way," says Sergio Bendixen, a Florida-based pollster making a new name for himself in national surveys of Hispanic voters. "They are becoming one of the more important swing votes."
Bill Clinton won overwhelming support in his 1996 re-election -- carrying Florida comfortably, with nearly 40 percent of the Cuban-American vote. Al Gore carried the Hispanic vote nationally in 2000, but not as strongly as Clinton, and won just 20 percent of the Cuban vote. This, and other factors, cost Gore Florida
The most significant change, nationally, involves a Hispanic electorate that was dominated by U.S.-born voters a decade ago, Bendixen says. Today, his surveys find that just over half of the Hispanic electorate is foreign-born.
The president understands the aspirations of voting immigrants thanks to his Texas upbringing, Bendixen believes. The president's brother gets it, too, having spent nearly half his life in Miami.
"Their advertising has been much more effective than Democratic advertising . . . by first making a personal emotional connection and then by talking about the issues," says Bendixen, who has served Democratic candidates and now advises a national coalition, the New Democratic Majority.
Democrats already are recalibrating their Florida campaigns for Cuban-American consumption, with the understanding that just a 10 percent gain in Little Havana can make a world of difference in a close race.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has cultivated ties to the Cuban community for years. Now Democrats Howard Dean of Vermont and U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts are learning to love the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, too.
The Democrats are going west as well.
For the first time this winter, a pair of Southwestern states with significant Hispanic voices will play big roles in the early vetting of a Democratic nominee.
After January's caucuses in Iowa and primary election in New Hampshire, several other states will offer other Democrats their best chances for a breakthrough on Feb. 3. That includes caucuses in New Mexico and a primary in Arizona.
Here in New Mexico, the modern Hispanic electorate looks like the old electorate, Bendixen says -- 90 percent U.S.-born. The new governor, Bill Richardson, is not only Hispanic, but also chairman of the '04 Democratic National Convention.
"The Hispanic vote is up for grabs," Richardson says.
This may be fertile territory -- Democrats outnumber Republicans by 5-3 in New Mexico, and Hispanics will cast one in three votes. Still, Florida has nothing on New Mexico when it comes to close calls. If Florida's presidential election ended with a 537-vote edge for Bush, Gore's margin of victory here was just 366.
Here, as in Florida, Democrats must work for it.