As results from the New Hampshire primaries rolled in, I called my father Ramon, a prideful 85-year-old "Democrata por vida" (Democrat for life). I asked what McCain's presence in the general election might mean for the fast-growing and ever-fluid Latino vote.
"My main candidate is Clinton," he affirmed in that defensive tone I know all too well, the tone that says 'leave my opinions alone'. But I persisted. I asked him who would get his vote if Clinton conceded before he and the rest of California cast their votes.
"Obama" he answered in that deep, sometimes forbidding voice, an early first target to my youthful will to fight the power. But before I could let out a deep familial sigh of political relief, he interjected "But I could vote for McCain, too."
McCain's entree into the general election could put the Latino vote in play far more than any of the other GOP candidates. The Arizona senator is one of the few who could erect a Latino barrier to the Democrat's wave of inevitability.
How my father votes, and the nine percent of the electorate that is Latino concerns me, but it should be of paramount concern to electoral strategists, especially as the primaries move to the Latino-packed West. My father's and other Latino's fluid vote is neither indecisiveness nor anti-black racism. The flux of the Latino voter reflects how history, culture and the candidate's equivocations around immigration politics continue to influence the protean Latino electorate. Either an Obama-McCain or a Clinton-McCain race would highlight how the votes of racially ambiguous Latinos bounce between red and blue in current American politics.
Unlike the black vote, which is consistently among the most reliably liberal -- especially black youth who polls find are the most progressive voters in the country, the Latino vote has proven to be more fluid. Their voting goes hand in hand with both their interests and their culture. During the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush's Spanish language appeals and promises of immigration reform won him somewhere between 37-44 percent of the Latino vote, a major increase from what he got in 2000. Latino voters like my father, had never had their vote courted as it was in 2004.
McCain's unique challenge to Democrats for the Latino vote comes down to simple math: his GOP rival's zeal to win white votes with anti-immigrant appeals is perceived by my father ("I'll be below the earth before voting for ANY of them") and other Latinos, as severely anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, if not racist. McCain's calls to treat immigrants "humanely" during the Spanish language GOP debate contrasted strikingly with the smiley 'get tough' talk of his shrill opponents.
My father and other voters heard the mantra of "McCain" alongside the hallowed "Kennedy" name during daily Spanish language media reports about "reforma migratoria" (immigration reform) for nearly two years. That still echoes in the Latino electorate. McCain's recent about face on immigration and his new "border security first" approach will only guarantee that my father embraces his inclination to vote Democrat. He also wants to vote to overcome the divisive legacy of racism.
For my father, Obama and Clinton's appeal is rooted in memories of the Civil Rights era, which the telegenic Illinois Senator so eloquently invokes. When Obama waxes King-like about the inequities of our racial past or when Clinton marches with black leaders, I see my father, a former union shop steward, remembering when he had to listen to white union reps at Southern Pacific railroad start meetings by greeting him and other Latino and African American workers in the audience with "Ladies and gentlemen -- and you colored folks, too." Obama's youthful message of moral clarity about the past, his political poetry of "reconciliation" reverberates as loudly with my father as do the echoes of the Clinton years.
But when Democrats are evasive -- as in Clinton's driver's license flip-flops or when Obama vacillated after being asked by Univision anchors about his vote for the border wall -- I see the moral and political opening exploited by Bush in 2004, and McCain before 2008. My father and most Latinos reject the wall as a "Muro de la Muerte" (Wall of Death). That the immigration debate merits neither Clinton's attention nor Obama's abundant rhetorical powers explains the hatred felt by Latinos (and documented in polls like the recent Pew Hispanic poll) and leaves many of us outside the wave of Obamania.
Obama and Clinton's Latino aspirations are further complicated by some of the more negative reports in Spanish language media of what my father and other, mostly immigrant, Latinos perceive as anti-Latino racism -- and violence -- among some African Americans and whites. Failure to denounce the racial divisiveness proffered by Republicans -- and many Democrats -- creates not confusion, but apathy for Democrat-leaning Latinos like my father.
As the primary wagon heads to Latino-heavy states like Florida, California and other mostly southwestern states, the nuances and quirks of Latino voters will take on unprecedented import. "Al fin de todo" (In the end), reflects my father as he awaits his turn to vote, "puede que sean la misma cosa los dos partidos. Vamos a ver." (It may be that both parties are the same thing. We'll see.)