In key states, Latino vote fueled Obama’s victory |

In key states, Latino vote fueled Obama’s victory

Ivan Moreno
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
** FILE ** In this Aug. 26, 2008 file photo, former Secretary of Energy and Transportation Federico Pena speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. "Without the Latino vote, we would not have won those states," said Pena, Denver's first Hispanic mayor and a national co-chairman of the Obama campaign about Democratic wins in the battleground states of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

DENVER ” Latinos are hailed as a key voting bloc, even though they show their power at the polls only sporadically. When they turned out in record numbers to vote for Democrat Barack Obama, they not only erased recent gains by Republicans but shattered the myth of a black-Latino divide.

Amid worries about home foreclosures and economic recession and driven by an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort and the acidic debate over illegal immigration, Latinos helped Democrats flip the battleground states of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida.

“Without the Latino vote, we would not have won those states,” said Federico Pena, Denver’s first Hispanic mayor and a national co-chairman of the Obama campaign.

The nonpartisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates that between 9.6 million and 11 million Hispanics voted in the election, compared to a U.S. Census estimate of 7.6 million in 2004. Latinos comprised 9 percent of all voters this year, compared to 7 percent in 2004, according to Associated Press exit polls.

Nationwide, the AP polls suggested about two-thirds of Latino voters chose Obama over Republican John McCain. About three-fourths of Hispanics under the age of 30 supported Obama.

In Florida, where President Bush won 56 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, Obama earned 57 percent of the Hispanic vote to McCain’s 42 percent. Obama won three-fourths of Latino votes in Nevada, and nearly 7 in 10 favored him in New Mexico, where he would have lost without them.

In Colorado, Hispanics supported Obama at nearly the same rate as Democrat John Kerry in 2004 ” about 6 in 10 ” but they made up 13 percent of the electorate this year, compared to an estimated 8 percent four years ago.

“In many respects, the Hispanic vote in this election has redrawn the electorate map,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group. “Four states that went for President Bush in 2004 went for Obama in 2008, and the critical factor was the huge turnout and the huge trend by Hispanic voters to Democrats.”

Gone are the significant inroads by Bush among Hispanic voters. Bush won over many in 2000 by saying he would build a solid relationship with Vicente Fox, then president of Mexico. Their relationship later soured.

In 2004, Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, assiduously courting Spanish-language news media and Hispanic small-business owners, said Maria Teresa Petersen, executive director of Voto Latino, the nonpartisan voting advocacy group co-founded by actress Rosario Dawson.

This time around, many of those small business owners have been battered by the economy, and Latinos came home to Democrats in droves.

“If you’re a Republican strategist, that should make you break into a cold sweat,” Sharry said.

Latinos have historically supported Democrats over Republicans, but other factors contributed to a surge for Obama that Kerry didn’t have against Bush in 2004.

The U.S. government naturalized a record number of Americans in the last year ” more than 1 million ” and Obama scored big among first-time voters. Some 28 percent of Hispanics the AP polled said they were voting for the first time, compared to 12 percent for all first-time voters. And the new Hispanic voters backed Obama by 76 percent to 23 percent for McCain.

“States that would’ve never been in play ” Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada ” were in play because of the increase in Hispanic population. Period. And all of a sudden, we saw a shift of more Latinos being eligible to vote,” Petersen said.

The debate on illegal immigration also hurt Republicans.

“Boy, it’s just really hard to vote for a party that says they’re going to deport your loved ones,” Sharry said.

Mexico native Graciela Cabral is a 38-year-old first-time voter in Denver who became a U.S. citizen in April. She said she voted for Obama because she felt he would do more to help immigrants and provide educational opportunities for their children.

Cabral not only voted for the first time but went door to door encouraging other Latinos to vote. It often took three visits to persuade neighbors to cast ballots, she said.

“A lot of people got annoyed, but a lot were grateful, too,” Cabral said in Spanish. For months, she worked with the nonpartisan advocacy group Mi Familia Vota, which targeted Latinos hesitant to vote.

The bleak economy also motivated many Hispanics to pick Obama.

“He wants to get jobs back, he wants to give tax exemptions to companies that want to create jobs here,” said Denver resident Gustavo Garcia, a 38-year-old producer of radio and TV commercials. “And I also like his perspective on health care ” that everyone should have health care.”

“It totally makes me happy,” Garcia added. “I think that this election was the election of the minorities.”

In fact, Latinos like Garcia disproved a perception that Obama critics latched on to at the start of Obama’s campaign: That Hispanics wouldn’t vote for a black candidate.

“I think what was important is this really dispelled the myth that Latinos would not support an African-American candidate,” said Arturo Vargas, NALEO executive director.

That perception may never have been true to begin with, at least in Colorado. Wellington Webb was elected Denver’s first black mayor in 1991, largely thanks to Latino support.

“We have more in common than we have apart,” Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez has said. “The issues in the African-American community are almost the same issues in the Chicano and Mexican-American community. I think we’re allies.”

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