Democrats take Hispanic voters for granted

August 10, 2004|By Miguel Perez

THEY HAVE received unprecedented attention from the two major political parties and from the media. They have been the target of increased political advertising and the subject of many more polls. But for a group that could become the swing vote in the November presidential election, U.S. Latinos are still being taken for granted.

This was already apparent in the attitude of Republicans, who think they can hold on to the 35 percent of Latinos who voted for President Bush in 2000 simply by proposing unimpressive immigration reform.

But it was even more apparent at the Democratic National Convention, where party leaders were so eager to project a united front that they forgot to show their diversity. At the convention, Latinos were mostly relegated to less-than-primetime players, and race relations and civil rights issues were buried in the back of the GOP-like platform.

Encouraged by recent polls showing that Mr. Bush has less support among Latinos than he did in 2000, Democrats are apparently convinced that they can continue to expect Latino support by default, without working for it.

At their convention, Democrats missed a great opportunity to showcase their Latino leaders and show the Latino community that their support is no longer taken for granted, as it has been for many years.

There were a large number of Latino delegates in Boston -- about 11 percent -- and the convention chairman, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, is Hispanic.

But unless they saw some short news reports on Spanish TV, Latinos who watched the convention hardly saw their people and hardly heard their issues being discussed.

During the four-day convention, only two Latinos -- Mr. Richardson and Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey -- were given primetime speaking slots. And thus the Democrats missed opportunities to motivate Latino voters for an election that could hinge on Latino turnout in battleground states such as Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Ohio and Nevada.

When some Latino leaders complained that the images coming out of the convention were not as diverse as the delegates, some convention officials were reportedly scrambling to correct their oversight by squeezing more Latino speakers into prominent speaking slots.

But can Democrats afford such oversights? Can they continue to treat Latinos as an afterthought?

Trying to save face, some die-hard Latino Democrats argued that their party's stand on issues -- such as jobs, schools and health care -- will be more important to Latino voters than the placement of Latino speakers at the convention.

But others said the image of Latino empowerment at the convention could have helped to motivate the masses to vote for the Democratic ticket in November.

Unfortunately, to motivate Latino voters, some party leaders may no longer feel they need to deal with immigration, bilingual education and other issues of particular interest to Latinos -- especially since the polls are telling them that Latinos are concerned about the same issues as most Americans: crime, the economy, education, the war in Iraq, national security.

But they fail to recognize that for Latinos, being excluded from the decision-making process on all those issues -- political empowerment -- is an even bigger issue.

Yet in spite of some grumbling all year over the lack of Latinos in policy-making positions within the campaign of Sen. John Kerry, and in spite of complaints that Mr. Kerry had no message designed to attract Latinos, Democrats still goofed at the convention.

Maybe their oversight is based on overconfidence, since the latest poll of registered Hispanic voters, by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation, showed that 62 percent are expected to vote for Mr. Kerry, while 32 percent are expected to vote for Mr. Bush.

Since a majority of Latinos is expected to vote for Mr. Kerry anyway, Democrats need a huge Latino voter turnout. But if they continue to take the Latino vote for granted and many Latino Democrats decide to stay home on Election Day, Mr. Bush could still get a 35 percent share of Latino voters.

After all, Mr. Bush still has to go through his convention, where Republicans could embarrass the Democrats by coming up with some primetime Latino speakers and a "compassionate" platform that includes a new immigration reform proposal that is more reasonable than the one already proposed by the president. Stay tuned.

Miguel Perez is a syndicated columnist.

Columnist Steve Chapman is on vacation.

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