07/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and Hispanics: Another Myth Exposed

This election season has been full of myths. Hillary Clinton is the inevitable Democratic nominee. John McCain's days as a candidate are numbered. With the primary season past, the myths continue, in the face of contrary evidence. Among the most persistent, and most inaccurate, is the idea that Barack Obama has trouble attracting Hispanic support.

Since the beginning of the year, polls have shown Obama with a commanding lead over John McCain among Hispanics. Recent polls have confirmed this. And yet prominent political commentators continue to state that the Hispanic vote is up for grabs.

This is not some esoteric debate over a minor voting block. To misread Hispanic voters is to miss a fundamental dynamic of the presidential race. For all the talk about race and gender, it is ethnicity that may determine the next president of the United States.

Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic group in the country, and they turned out in the primaries in higher numbers relative to 2004 than any other segment of the population, except for voters under 30. As the presidential campaigns map out paths to 270 electoral votes, nearly every scenario involves winning a significant share of Hispanics, who will account for up to 1 in 10 voters in November.

At the top of almost every list of swing states are four with sizeable Hispanic electorates -- New Mexico (31 percent), Nevada (13 percent), Florida (11 percent) and Colorado (8 percent). George Bush won all four of these states in 2004 and all but New Mexico in 2000, but each one is likely to be competitive this year.

Throughout the primaries, Hispanics were solidly behind Hillary Clinton, who benefited from positive memories of her husband's presidency and an opponent whose record and background were little known to many Latinos. Obama's relatively weak performance among Hispanics in the primary has helped fan the idea that he has a Latino problem or that Hispanics are disinclined to vote for black candidates.

In fact, Obama is running well ahead of John McCain among Hispanics, and significantly better than John Kerry did against George Bush in 2004. Obama's leads in national polls are due to his strong advantage (about 35 points) among Latinos. Take out Hispanics, and the race is effectively tied.

The gains that Republicans made among Latino voters in 2000 and 2004 were erased in 2006, and there are few signs that McCain is in a position to win them back. The Republican brand name has been so severely damaged that it would be difficult for any Republican to retain much support among Hispanics this year.

George Bush's approval rating has plummeted to below 30 percent among Hispanics, just as it has among the general public. Half as many Hispanics have a favorable image of the Republican Party as of the Democrats.

Democrats also continue to retain their advantage as the party most attuned to Hispanics. In a poll earlier this year among Latino voters in California and the southwest, Democrats held a whopping 10 to 1 advantage as the party that understands the concerns of Hispanics. Obama also holds a lead among these voters of more than 20 points on the issue of most concern to Latinos (and voters overall): the economy.

McCain previously enjoyed a profile that could appeal to Hispanics in some ways. On immigration, for example, the Arizona senator joined with Senator Edward Kennedy to craft legislation that would give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. But during his bid for the Republican nomination, McCain shifted right and distanced himself from his own bill.

Democrats cannot take the Hispanic vote for granted, however. Despite McCain's shift on immigration, he remains a formidable opponent. He is more competitive with Obama than a generic party match-up would suggest. McCain will likely seek to blunt the Democrats' advantage on the economy by stressing national security and social issues like abortion and gay marriage on which many Hispanics hold conservative views.

But Obama has an attractive profile for Hispanic voters. They are particularly impressed with his background as an urban community organizer and early opposition to the Iraq war.

The key for Obama and the Democrats to retaining Hispanic support will be to educate voters about the Senator's personal and political credentials and to frame the election around the economy. Obama's message of change, tax cuts for the middle class, and universal health care appeal to Hispanics, just as they resonate with voters overall. Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh might imagine that Hispanics have interests that diverge from those of most Americans. But that's just another myth.