Latinos for Obama: Sí se pudo!

By Diego Graglia and David Saltonstall
Tuesday, November 11th 2008, 4:00 AM

Barack Obama spent much of his campaign exhorting Hispanics with chants of “Sí se puede.”

Now, he might want to say gracias.

Exit poll data show Hispanic voters backed Obama by a whopping 2-to-1 margin, helping to deliver much of the Southwest and also Florida, Virginia and other big battlegrounds where Republicans have long held sway.

“Latinos are reshaping the future of the political landscape,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

The Ecuadorian Day Parade in New York before the 2008 election.
The Ecuadorian Day Parade in New York before the 2008 election. (Photos: Diego Graglia)

A record 9.7 million Latinos voted this year, a surge of 2.1 million from 2004, according to exit polls.

Now that Hispanic voters did their part, pro-immigrant advocates are hoping to see President Obama follow through on his promise of starting immigration reform.

“Candidate Obama promised to move in the first year and made it quite clear he thought raids are not the best way to enforce immigration law,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of pro-immigrant group America’s Voice.

The Democrats, he added, “are going to have to deliver on this.”

Hispanics as a group have always tilted Democratic in presidential contests, but the degree to which they choose to back the party’s nominee can vary a lot.

In 2004, for instance, President Bush got roughly 40% of the Hispanic vote, considered a high-water mark for the GOP in recent years. Last Tuesday, Republican John McCain walked away with just 32% Hispanic support, compared with 66% for Obama.

Just as important was where Obama drew these votes.

Latino support for the Democrat was higher than the national average in Nevada (76%), Colorado (73%) and New Mexico (69%) — all formerly red states with growing Hispanic populations that turned blue for Obama.

He managed to reverse one longstanding trend in American politics. Latinos in Florida have leaned Republican for decades, thanks to a fervent anti-Fidel Castro Cuban-American political machine.

But this year, 57% of Latinos in the Sunshine State voted Democratic, thanks to a bigger presence of Puerto Ricans in central Florida and a progressive tide among young Cuban-Americans.

Bush carried 56% of the Hispanic vote in Florida four years ago, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Hispanic voters gave Obama the winning edge in much of the Southwest and Florida.
Hispanic voters gave Obama the winning edge in much of the Southwest and Florida.

Latinos could even be credited with giving Obama the edge in Virginia and Indiana, two states not usually associated with big Hispanic populations, said Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based pollster who specializes in Latino issues.

Those states may not be known for their tacos or their chimichurri, but exit polls showed that “the winning margin was the Hispanic vote,” Bendixen said.

In New York City, Latino neighborhoods showed big turnouts and wide support for Obama, according to an exit poll sponsored by the New York Immigration Coalition. About nine out of every 10 Hispanics voted for the Democrat and Latinos made up 36% of first-time voters in the city.

Experts cited the broad current of anti-immigrant fervor that ran through the Republican primary as the main reason for Obama’s success.

Although McCain had long championed an immigration reform bill embraced by many Hispanic leaders, he abandoned it amid fierce opposition within his own party.

“He lost his credibility when he said he would not support his own legislation for humane immigration reform,” said Maria Teresa Petersen, the founding executive director of Voto Latino. “That was the last leg of the stool.”

Now, many see an opportunity for Obama to bring Hispanics deeper into the Democratic fold, perhaps with a top Hispanic cabinet appointment. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is considered a top contender.

“I’ve been calling Latinos the soccer moms of 2008,” Petersen said. “Now the opportunity is there for the Democrats to make them a firm base of the party.”