What To Watch For In Race For Hispanic Vote

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Both parties seem to agree the Latino vote will be crucial in the upcoming election. The population is growing rapidly, and Latino voters can mean the difference in several states. Guest host Linda Wertheimer talks to NPR's Ken Rudin about the importance of this constituency.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

With about 50 days to go before Election Day, both parties are focusing on what will lead them to victory in both the battle for the White House, as well as control in Congress. What everyone seems to agree upon is that the Latino vote will be crucial. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population in the U.S. increased by some 43 percent. Latino voters can mean the difference in several states.

We're once again joined by Ken Rudin, NPR's Political Junkie here in our Washington studios. Hi, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So Ken, first of all, in what states does the Hispanic vote matter most?

RUDIN: Well, we're obviously talking about the states that are still in doubt, both in the presidential race and in the key Senate contests. Of course, you know, there is a huge Latino presence in California and in Texas. But in California, President Obama and Senator Dianne Feinstein should win big there. And in Texas, Mitt Romney and the Republican Senate nominee there, Ted Cruz - who is a Cuban-American - will win there handily, as well.

By the way, I should tell you the three other states with the Latino vote is relatively small but rapidly growing are North Carolina, Virginia and Iowa; all are close between Obama and Romney, and all went for the president four years ago. Latino vote could be significant there, as well.

WERTHEIMER: So, then, what would Mitt Romney need to do to change that, to win them over?

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Well, that's a good question, especially with only about 50 days to go. He didn't do himself any favors during the primaries with his rhetoric about self-deportation and things like that. But the Romney campaign argues that Latinos are less focused on that issue like immigration and more on jobs, and that Hispanics unemployment is about 10 percent. And the Romney campaign insists that's what's going to drive voters to the polls.

If there's any question about the importance the Latino vote, just take a look at their presence, who we saw speaking at the conventions. Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator from Florida, introduced Romney; the wife of the governor of Puerto Rico introduced Ann Romney. And on the Democratic side, Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, was the keynote speaker for the Democrats. So both sides know the importance of the Latino vote.

WERTHEIMER: And who is winning this battle so far?

RUDIN: Well, it hasn't changed in a while. The polls seem to show President Obama with a sizable lead, 65-67 percent of the vote. That's kind of like what he got four years ago against Senator John McCain, who got about 31 percent. Now, George W. Bush got about 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 when he was running for re-elected. Romney's goal is to approach that number, but it really is an uphill fight.

WERTHEIMER: You mentioned earlier the battle for the Senate. What contests should we be watching?

RUDIN: Well, two states really jump out at me. And that's Arizona and New Mexico, both of course in the Southwest. In Arizona, the Democrats have nominated Richard Carmona. He's the former surgeon general. He's of Puerto Rican heritage. He speaks Spanish fluently. But Arizona has never had an Hispanic senator and this a very - still a Republican state. Mitt Romney should win it handily. And the Republican nominee in that Senate contest, congressman Jeff Flake, is thought to have a lead.

And in New Mexico, you know, the Republicans have a very strong Senate candidate there, Heather Wilson, a former congresswoman that has done very well with Latinos in the past when she's run for Congress. But this is a really a strong Obama state. New Mexico has the largest Hispanic vote in the country, about 35 percent. Obama is doing very well among Latinos, and he's turned this state, really what had been a swing state into basically a blue state. And congressman Martin Heinrich is the Democratic Senate nominee there. He's opened up a lead in the polls in recent weeks, and national Republicans have indicated that they are pulling out of the state.

WERTHEIMER: Ken, one state where the Latino vote generally has worked for Republicans is Florida. It's elected a Hispanic Republican to the governorship, two to the Senate, including Marco Rubio is there now. What do you think? Do you think that, that Hispanic vote in Florida holds for the Republicans?

RUDIN: Well, obviously it'll be crucial, not only in the race for president - where Romney and Obama are so close - but in the Senate race, as well. Senator Bill Nelson is the Democratic incumbent. He's thought to have a lead over Republican challenger, congressman Connie Mack the Fourth. But Connie Mack is going to win, he needs a huge Cuban-American vote to put him over the top.

WERTHEIMER: Ken Rudin writes the weekly Political Junkie column, which can be found each Monday at npr.org/junkie. Tomorrow's column focuses on the fight for the Senate.

Ken, thanks.

RUDIN: Thank you, Linda.

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