Spanish-speaking Latino candidate Bill Richardson looked like he'd swallowed a big burrito when asked en Espanol, "Would you be willing to promote Spanish as the second official language of the United States?" His fellow presidential candidates, all of whom were thrown off by and joined him in dodging this and other questions unprecedented in the annals of U.S. political history, also looked like nervous immigrants being interrogated by ICE agents. To watch both the audacity of the questioning and the role reversal it inspired was to watch the translation of power.
Joe Garcia summed up handily the significance of Univisión's* broadcast of the first-ever Spanish language presidential debate. "The real winner this evening is Latino power," he told me in Cubano-inflected English in between interviews with big mainstream and big Spanish language media outlets that had descended on the debate (officially called a "foro" and "forum") held at the University of Miami campus. Garcia, a vice president at the New Democrat Network (NDN) and head of the Miami-Dade Democratic party, was instrumental in putting together tonight's historic event, an event he calls "a super bowl of Latino participation." While much of the evening was spent answering questions (not debating) around Latinos' top issues (Iraq, immigration, education, U.S./Latin America policy and others), the most important outcome of the evening was what the very visibly nervous candidates said to the audience between the lines (and what Latinos are increasingly telling themselves): "you have power."
Still a mystery to even the most seasoned political consultants (just look at their meager Spanish language ad budgets and English language ads like Dem darling Harold Ford's anti-immigrant TV messaging in '06), the Latino power displayed alongside Senators Clinton, Obama, Edwards and other candidates moves along three separate but intertwined vectors on display this evening: media power, (swing) voting power and immigrant power. This same confluence drove last year's massive immigrant rights marches and the Latino backlash against Republicans last November, when the GOP went from getting an unprecedented 40 to 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 to less than 29 percent.
More than just symbolic pandering aimed at a single-issue voter block long-ignored in presidential politics, the Univisión debate marks a coming-of-age of the very-politically engaged (think millions marching in the largest simultaneous marches in U.S. history) Latino community. Far from being the monolithic group sold to advertisers by Univisión ad reps and to candidates by political consultants, tonight's debate marks another milestone in the understanding of Latinos as a group that's as varied and complex as any other. With a growing split of the Cuban-American vote between its historically Republican and ascendant Democratic camps and with its large populations of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and other Democrat-leaning Latino subgroups, Miami provided the perfect venue from which to project and broadcast the ascent, dynamism and complexity of Latino power.
The reasons candidates exposed themselves to the discomfort of being asked by Univisión anchor Maria Elena Salinas "Why not build a wall at the (U.S.) Canada border?" have as much to do with immigration politics as they do with the fact that Latinos are no longer that little-known 2.5 million person voter block concentrated largely in California and Texas in 1980. Today, the more than 14 million Latinos expected to vote in 2008 are sought out by the candidates because of the unique position they occupy on key parts of the electoral college map, a map that's also dotted with more than 18 full-power Univisión TV stations and more than 1800 of its cable affiliates along with hundreds of radio stations.
Tonight's debate was the first of what will likely be many strategic political moves in Latino America because the Democrats know that their presidential candidates have won 248 or more electoral college votes in the last four presidential elections. This, in turn, means that swing states and their voters will wield power far beyond their numbers in 2008. If trends seen in 2006 continue, the Democrats can secure the 277 votes they need to win the presidency next year by winning Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, all sites of major Latino voting blocks. By simply adding Florida to the historic Democratic core, they get 275 votes. Far from experimental, tonight's debate marks the beginning of what will, like the YouTube debates, become a new media staple of U.S. politics, a bilingual media staple where, unlike the YouTube debates, the audience sometimes has a propensity to march in the streets after watching TV or surfing the growing Latino political web.
Poll after poll and the evenings questions (ie; "How will you deal with the growing anti-immigrant, anti-Latino racism?") all indicate that Latino voters, especially the immigrant voters who now make up half of all Latino votes and who are the fastest-growing voter segment, harbor profound concerns about the increased raids, racial profiling, lack of immigration reform and other signs of ill-treatment of immigrants. Though most polls tell us that, like most Americans, Latinos' #1 political issue is the Iraq war, a Gallup poll conducted in July indicated that 1/3rd of Latinos felt immigration was their number one issue.
Viewed from the perspective of these ascendant voters, even the Democrats' nervous, measured responses to the questions struck a definite contrast with the histrionics still heard from a Republican leadership that crafted and pushed the most punitive immigration policies in U.S. history. Overwhelming numbers of Latinos viewed this as tantamount to a political and personal betrayal, including many Republicanos. Shortly after last year's congressional elections, Lionel Sosa, a close ally of Karl Rove ("we've been good friends a long, long time") who is widely credited with reversing Republican Latino fortunes in the 2000 race, confided to me that "We as a party got the spanking we needed." He also said after last year's GOP Latino debacle that "I don't think everything I worked for is lost." But when so many Republicans continued the "awful" championing of the anti-immigrant politic, he started having second thoughts. So, last night, Sosa continued his involvement in melding Latino power with mainstream politics by cheering for his new candidate, Bill Richardson. "Blood is thicker than party" said Sosa when asked by a reporter why he went from advising and backing Republicans like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to backing the Mexico Governor.
Sosa and others see in the tea leaves of last night's Democratic event even deeper troubles for the GOP in the months leading up to the 2008 election. ALL Republican candidates with the exception of John McCain declined to participate in a similar Univisión GOP candidate event. Meanwhile, the Democrats have been busily brushing up on their Spanish and making further inroads into this increasingly important segment of the electorate. Formerly in the vanguard of capturing the Latino vote, the GOP looks to many Latinos as if its stepping back to the future of its monolithic, monochromatic roots.
"While we're looking more and more like the rest of the country, they still look like a gated white men's club" said NDN's Garcia, a rising star in Democrat circles who once occupied the star chamber of Miami power as leader of the storied and extremely conservative Cuban American National Foundation. Reflecting on what he had accomplished with tonight's historic debate, Garcia reminded me about the importance of the media, migration and voting power nexus. "The rise in Cuban American immigrant power came in no small part because of radio" said Garcia adding "We couldn't afford television back then. Now we hold power in key positions in every sector of Miami society."
After glad-handing with the departing candidates, a tired but happy Garcia watched the English and Spanish language network TV crews dismantle their equipment. And then, he breathed a sigh of relief before inhaling like a boxer on his way to winning another round and said, "We're just getting started. Pretty soon the rest of the country will start looking like Miami. And just imagine what will happen in 2050, when 6 of the 10 largest U.S. cities start with "Los" or "San"? Like us or not, here we come?"
(* Full Disclosure: I did some consulting for Univisión some years ago.)