White House Hopefuls Court Latino Vote

This year's presidential race hinges in part on the Latino vote in key states like California. Maria Teresa Petersen of Voto Latino says the candidates are polishing up their Spanish.

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(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Child: (Speaking in foreign language)

BILL WOLFF, host:

We're with you. That's the message from the Latino supporters in Hillary Clinton's new 30-second campaign spot called Nuestra Amiga. It's our friend in Spanish. The presidential candidate is hoping her Latino support, which includes the endorsements of heavyweights like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Clinton cabinet member Henry Cisneros, who was also the mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez will carry her in delegate-heavy swing states on Super Tuesday, places where Latinos make up about 10 percent of the electorate.

So in Super Tuesday's states like Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico, the candidates and their camps are dusting off the old eight-grade Spanish to try to woo the Latino vote.

(Soundbite of ad)

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): (Speaking in foreign language)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): (Speaking in foreign language)

WOLFF: With TV pitches like these running on Spanish language channels, bilingual phone banks and neighborhood canvassers, the candidates are campaigning hard to win over this crucial and growing demographic.

Joining us now is Maria Teresa Petersen, founding executive director of Voto Latino, a non-profit, non-partisan group for Latino voter outreach. Good morning.

Ms. MARIA TERESA PETERSEN (Executive Director, Voto Latino): Good morning. Thanks for having me on the show.

WOLFF: Thank you for being with us. We appreciate it. To what degree do the ads like the ones we just heard, you know, or Obama's si se puede chant ala Cesar Chavez, resonate, do you think, among Latino voters?

Ms. PETERSEN: Well, I think, it's really curious. What we're finding - Pew came out with a study in 2007, really diagnosing, trying to identify what language Latino voters consume in. And they came out with the study's finding that 79 percent of Latinos consume their language in English when it comes to deciding a voter.

So when you see a lot of individuals pouring tons of money into Spanish-specific ads, they're really touching only 21 percent of the electorate. And…

WOLFF: Do you think - pardon me, but do you think that there's a risk among Latino voters who consume their news in English that the candidates who try to express themselves in Spanish are patronizing? Do you think…

Ms. PETERSEN: Absolutely.

WOLFF: So there's - there could be backlash against these Spanish language ads.

Ms. PETERSEN: Well, I think it's more - not backlash, but I think it's more of the Latino community kind of rolling their eyes and saying, come on, get with the program.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Right. Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Right. In Nevada, Hillary Clinton won a huge percentage of the Latino vote, 64 percent. Barack Obama got 26 percent. In Florida, Hillary won by about a two-to-one margin among Latinos. How do you explain Hillary Clinton's, at least to this moment, Hillary Clinton's dominance among the Latino voters?

Ms. PETERSEN: Well, I think what you need to do is two things. One, in Nevada, she's been campaigning there for a couple of years, long before Barack. So when you had the Culinary Workers endorse him, he just really didn't have an on-the-ground troop operation ready to go and disseminate the message.

Now, in Florida, it's been interesting because they've come out with a study that basically demarks there's a general - generational gap in supporters for Hillary Clinton. Individuals in the Latino community are very much over 40 going over for Hillary Clinton. Folks under 30 are going for Barack.

And the reason why it's significant is that the Latino community, of the 46 million people living here, 18 million are eligible voters, and exactly 50 percent of them are under 40 and 35 percent of them are between 18 to 29. So it's an interesting dynamic.

WOLFF: And so this presumed death grip that Hillary Clinton has on Latino voters is not necessarily there. There's been a lot - in my observation, the phenomenon of the Latino swing vote is relatively new. And in mainstream media reporting about it, there is a presumption or at least a fear that's often posited that Latino voters are not inclined to vote for an African-American candidate. What you've just said debunks that somewhat, that it's more generational than it is ethnic. Is there validity to that point of view in the mainstream media?

Ms. PETERSEN: No, and I think that - I mean, that was - and I don't even think it's mainstream media. I think that's coming out of the political camps. And I think there's danger in that because they're trying to incite, you know, racial tension when there really isn't. And by doing so, you incite racial tensions that will be long lasting longer than November 4th. I mean, perfect example, you know, Rangel - his - in his seat, he has a large portion of Latinos that vote for him year after year.

WOLFF: Well…

STEWART: You know, that was interesting last night in the debate, somebody actually wrote in a question talking about, asking Barack Obama about - excuse me - illegal immigration having an adverse impact on African-American jobs. And he said, wait a minute, this is just - let's not go there, was sort of his answer, the subject of his answer. Let's not start pitting people against people.

Ms. PETERSEN: Absolutely. And I think that's where the danger is, and I think that - and he's right on the money. You don't want to do that, especially when there's not a history of that actually being the case, especially when it comes to individuals electing African-Americans in areas where there's a strong Latino, you know, Latino presence.

WOLFF: Well, one example I can cite would have been the election of Tom Bradley, mayor of Los Angeles, who won Latino voters 10-to-1 in a famous race 30 years ago. The issue of immigration - what are the key tenets of immigration policy among Latino voters? What are the things which concern Latino voters in terms of that policy and which positions would you say would likely draw the support of the most Latinos?

Ms. PETERSEN: Again, I think it's - I think what happens with the immigration policy is it's a catalyst for, you know, for Latinos to basically awaken to this whole notion of somewhere along the line, being an immigrant, being Latino has been equivocate with being un-American. And while I think immigration policy is definitely an important issue for the Latino community, it's difficult(ph) for them to say, you know what, we've been in this country for - some of us were first generation, some of us, we've been here for hundreds of years. It's time that we start equivocating being undocumented with being, you know, being immigrant, and really looking at other issues where folks can move us. And the example I cite is in 19 - in 2006, we had immigration rallies all over the country, the biggest ones being in New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois and California. Come the general election, only two states actually had an uptake in voter turnout among the Latino community, and that was Illinois and California.

What happened in New York where, you know, you had the largest immigration rallies? What happened to, you know, the women in New York that marched, but decided, you know what, you still don't get me. I'm still not going to the polls to vote.

WOLFF: Huh. Maria Theresa Peterson is the founding executive director of Voto Latino. Thank you so much for joining us this morning. We really appreciate it.

Ms. PETERSON: Thank you so much. It's been fun. Have a good day you guys.

STEWART: You, too.

Ms. PETERSON: Bye-bye.

STEWART: Hey, next up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, we'll hear some Super Bowl spin from Will Lietch. Some deadspin, you might say.

WOLFF: We're going to blow down about eight hours of Super Bowl free game into about six minutes.

STEWART: This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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