Obama and the Latino Vote

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

At a training session for Spanish-speaking volunteers here last month in a community theater in a predominantly Latino northeast city neighborhood, a senior official of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign mentioned a poll that had the Democratic nominee winning two-thirds of Latino voters in Colorado.

“Do you think this is hard support?” the official asked the room.

“No,” answered the crowd of volunteers, a bit wearily.

The official nodded: “A lot of us think that it’s soft support too.”

For all the media fretting about whether Obama can close the deal with white voters in rural and exurban parts of the Rust Belt, the soft underbelly of Obama’s impressive campaign may be the predominantly Latino precincts of Mountain West, in hotly contested states such as Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado.
Obama is almost certain to win the Latino vote here and around the country. But he needs more than a positive margin among Latinos in Colorado and in other red states from Nevada to Florida. He needs to bring out Latinos in unprecedented numbers.

 

President Bush won Colorado by 99,000 votes in 2004. And the Democrats’ best chance to grow their number of votes is by turning out an unprecedented percentage of Latinos; by the campaign’s estimates, more than 180,000 Latinos are eligible to vote but don’t. Turn disengaged Latinos here into Obama voters, and the presidency is in Democratic hands.

This is a difficult task for Obama, who must confront historic distrust between Latinos and African-Americans, particularly in urban areas where he must run up the turnout. During the primaries, Obama overwhelmingly lost Latino voters to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. And for all its famous organizing efforts in the battle with Clinton, Obama’s campaign never developed a turnout operation with the community ties and Spanish fluency to reach large numbers of Latino voters.

Pursuing the Latino vote is an inexact and disconcerting exercise for a campaign that has a near-religious faith in data. The Latino vote is hard to define and even harder to predict. In February’s California primary, Obama appeared to have pulled close to Clinton in public opinion surveys, only to be overwhelmed by a Latino turnout that doubled pollsters’ projections and gave the New York senator an unexpected large margin of victory.

“We didn’t do a good job of this in the primaries,” says a campaign official of Latino turnout efforts. “Now we’re doing it in a very short period of time.”

What exactly is the strategy? As with so much else in a campaign led by a former community organizer, strategists think the answer lies in organizing. The idea is to adopt the campaign’s Camp Obamas — schools that turn volunteers into campaign organizers — for the Latino community. This training has been effective throughout the campaign, but the Latino-targeted effort has started late — less than two months before the election in Colorado. There is hope that money will help the campaign catch up. The Latino outreach program has a budget of $20 million, according to campaign officials.

As a sign of how important a priority such training has become, the Harvard lecturer Marshall Ganz, a former director of organizing for the United Farm Workers in California, personally led last month’s Latino training in Denver. Ganz, an architect of the campaign’s strategy of training volunteers as organizers, also conducted similar sessions for Spanish speakers in Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Orlando.
Organizers of the Denver meeting allowed me to attend the entire proceedings and quote what was said, though many Obama staffers, citing a fierce directive from Chicago headquarters to stay out of the papers, would not agree to be interviewed on the record.

The sessions had the intense and ruthlessly efficient style that is an Obama hallmark. Pizzas were delivered but sat, growing cold and stale, as meetings continued without break. The training started early in the morning and ended past 9 p.m. Top Obama campaign staffers from Colorado and from Chicago headquarters attended, offering a sense of urgency and in a few cases, desperation. Michael Lott-Manier, who is working for Obama here, confessed to some volunteers that he had a stack of paperwork on Spanish-speaking voters in his office — but not enough Spanish-speaking volunteers and staff to contact them.
Some 98 volunteers began the training on Friday, and by weekend’s end, 96 had completed it. It was quite a group: young Anglos who had studied in Latin America and learned the language, Latino immigrants with a strong desire to make their community’s voice heard, retired teachers and state workers who have time to indulge their love of political activism, and a large collection of law school students who seemed to be there, at least in part, because they are very bored with law school.

During the session, Ganz said little about politics and almost nothing at all about Obama’s positions on issues. Instead, he tried to get volunteers to talk about themselves — in succinct, coherent stories that they can relate in conversations with voters at front doors and over the phone.

There’s a formula to this. Start with a bit of biographical information about yourself. Tell a story about a challenge that you overcame. And then relate your story and the challenge to the story of why you’re working for Obama. The goal: volunteers should make emotional connections and develop real relationships with the voters they’re seeking to turn into Obama supporters.

“This is not an interview. This is rooted in story,” Ganz says. “Make yourself a little bit vulnerable.”
By the end of the weekend, each volunteer organizer was telling these stories to friends and acquaintances via cell phones handed out in the theater where the training took place. No one went home until he or she had arranged for 50 people to attend a house party for Obama. That’s nearly 5,000 potential voters, most of them Latino, committed to attend a party for the Democratic nominee. The volunteers also formed teams with other organizers from their areas, made plans to meet campaign targets for voter contact by phone and in person, and brainstormed new ways to reach voters. (Bingo-bama nights for senior was judged the best suggestion).

Will it be enough?

No one here would offer a firm opinion. They’re too busy playing catch-up.

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