Activists in Southwest register Hispanics to vote

Influx tips balance in region, but change is happening slowly

Election 2004

September 26, 2004|By Ronald Brownstein and Kathleen Hennessey | Ronald Brownstein and Kathleen Hennessey,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LAS VEGAS - Block by block, house by house, Cesar Auyb and Irene Rodriguez are changing politics in Nevada. But the change is coming slowly.

Since May, the two have been on leave from their jobs in Las Vegas casinos to work as organizers for a union-sponsored, nonprofit organization trying to increase voter registration among the state's exploding Hispanic population. On a bright and breezy morning last weekend, each was diligent and cheerful while pursuing potential voters in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood west of the downtown strip.

But in an hour of door knocking, each registered just one new voter. Everyone else they encountered was ineligible to register, many because they had not taken the steps to become U.S. citizens, even though they met the legal requirements.

In miniature, the experience of Auyb and Rodriguez shows how the continuing influx of Hispanics is reshaping the partisan balance across the desert Southwest - and why the transformation may not arrive fast enough to help Sen. John Kerry erase President Bush's advantage in the hotly contested region in November.

Slowly but inexorably, activists across the region are moving more Hispanics to the polls; even with the difficulties experienced by Auyb, Rodriguez and other canvassers, their group, the Citizenship Project, has registered 3,000 new Hispanic voters in Las Vegas this year.

Such hard-won progress is gradually strengthening Democratic prospects not only in Nevada and New Mexico, swing states in recent presidential elections, but also in Colorado and Arizona, which the GOP has dominated. In all four states, Hispanics make up a larger share of voters today than in 1992. And they are a reliably Democratic bloc.

Experts in both parties agree that eventually, this demographic trend could give the Southwest the largest concentration of toss-up states outside the industrial Midwest.

But Hispanics are still not registering and voting in numbers large enough to maximize their influence. As a result, in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, Hispanics represent a smaller share of the vote - in some cases much smaller - than their share of the population, according to exit polls on election days.

Barriers

While Hispanics are growing more important with each election, that means they are unlikely to become a decisive factor in these states until they overcome the barriers to political participation that thwarted the canvassers in Las Vegas.

"The pool of potential voters lags way behind the growth in the Hispanic population," said Maria Cardona, director of the Hispanic outreach project at the New Democratic Network, a centrist Democratic group.

That gap means that Hispanics - who could tip any of the Southwest's four battleground states to Kerry - are more likely to play a supporting role than a starring role in this year's fight for the region's 29 Electoral College votes.

"The longer-term implications for Latino empowerment in what we are seeing are great," said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine who specializes in Hispanic politics. "But they aren't necessarily in this election."

Still, with most Hispanics in the Southwest leaning Democratic, local Republicans recognize that if they cannot improve their support within this community, their political position is likely to grow increasingly insecure in these states.

"We are getting out into the community and going places where the Republican Party never went," said Jose Esparza, chairman of the Arizona Latino Republican Association. "For whatever reason, 10 years ago that wasn't happening."

The effect of the region's changing demography is evident in the increased attention it is receiving from the presidential campaigns. From 1968 through 1988, the Southwest was so reliably Republican in the national vote that it was rarely a political target. But Bill Clinton, in his two White House victories, carried Nevada and New Mexico twice, and Arizona and Colorado once. In 2000, Bush won Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, while Al Gore carried New Mexico. And neither man won more than 51 percent of the vote in any of the four states.

This year, each state has been closely contested. Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns have bought English- and Spanish-language television ads in all four. Although Kerry recently stopped buying television time in Arizona and Colorado, the Democratic National Committee has continued to broadcast ads in both.

The New Democratic Network has spent heavily on a Spanish-language television campaign in the region, stressing historic ties between Hispanics and Democrats. And Republican outreach efforts are burgeoning in all four states.

"It's probably something that should have happened years ago, but I'm glad the national party is putting a priority on this," said Lionel Rivera, the Republican mayor of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Democratic hope

The latest polls have shown Bush staking out a solid lead in Arizona, ahead more narrowly in Nevada and in tight races with Kerry in New Mexico and Colorado. More than any other single factor, it has been the Hispanic community's growth that has moved these states from reliably Republican toward the toss-up category.

Despite the increasing Republican outreach efforts, polls indicate that most Hispanic voters in these states prefer Democrats. In 2000, Gore carried about two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in each, according to the Voter News Service exit polls.

That strong performance, combined with the rapid population growth, fuels the Democratic hope that as these states become more heavily Hispanic, they will also lean more heavily Democratic.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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