After hearing about Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama, my father, Ramon, says it made him think twice about his support for Hillary Clinton. "That (endorsement) matters," he said as he watched Spanish language Obama ads squeezed in between Univision news reports of the Kennedy endorsement, "They (the Kennedys) have a lot of history with us".
That Ramon, who was defensive the last time I asked him about who he'd vote for, is now rethinking his previous support for Clinton previews what may be a big Super Duper Tuesday surprise: Obama cutting into Clinton's lead among the more than 10 million Latinos eligible to vote this week.
National polls like the recent USA Today poll show Obama either drastically or completely reducing Clinton's lead across the country. But other developments indicate that what pundits and media outlets have been calling Clinton's Latino "firewall" may also be falling. A case in point is Arizona, where Obama actually leads Clinton among Latinos by 53-37 percent, according to a recent poll conducted by McClatchy newspapers.
Conventional wisdom tells us that history, political patronage and the much-coveted endorsements from members of most the Latino politirati are driving Latinos voters like Ramon towards Clinton. But Arizona tells us that history may still be in the making-and remaking. While the Kennedy endorsements do bring a new glow to the hallowed velvet pictures of JFK adorning homes and apartments of many older Latinos, Obama's Arizona advantage can hardly be explained solely in terms of the spirits of our Latino political past.
Obama is also speaking to the present and to the future. Whether or not Obama can cut Clinton's Latino advantage by Tuesday, his gains in Arizona provide valuable object lessons with regard to Latino politics, object lessons that take us far beyond the now ridiculous ideas about Latinos' racist refusal to vote for a black person. Principal among the lessons of Arizona is the strategic priority placed on new Latino voters.
"It's not rocket science" says Cuauhtémoc "Temo" Figueroa, the former union organizer who is the Obama campaign's National Field Director. "We can't win without new voters. We need young people, immigrants and other voters traditionally left out of the elections" said Figueroa from the very loud Obama campaign office in Fresno, California adding "New voters were key to victory in Iowa and new voters are key to winning the Latino vote."
Central to dropping Clinton's advantage are Obama's appeals to the more than 2 million immigrants and first and second generation Latinos added to the rolls of eligible voters since 2004. In Arizona, unions like the SEIU and nonprofits like the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project have undertaken massive voter registration campaigns. Such intense focus on new Latino voters comes atop political soil prepared by what huge majorities of these Latinos consider the fertilizer of anti-immigrant politics.
Obama's efforts in Arizona and across the Latino U.S. are yielding fruit in no small part because he, more than Hillary Clinton, has intensified his organizing around and his stands on immigration, the definitive issue of Latino politics. Though many polls show the economy, education the Iraq war are the top issues for Latino and other voters this election year, massive marches, polls and common sense tell us that immigration is shaping the political consciousness of an entire generation of new voters. Clinton, who has both avoided or flip-flopped around the issue, is counting on history, name recognition and the endorsements she received from the majority of old-line Latino political leaders like Raul Yzaguirre, the former head of the National Council of La Raza or United Farmworkers leader, Dolores Huerta.
To counterbalance pull of the Latino political past, Obama has started more aggressively deploying a browner, more pro-immigrant variant of the future-oriented message that fueled his victories in the largely black and white states of Iowa and South Carolina. Obama's unswerving support for driver's licenses for the undocumented and his commitment to deal with immigration reform early in his tenure are being noticed in Latino voter's homes as well as in editorial offices of newspapers like of the Los Angeles-based La Opinion, which recently endorsed him. Editors at the country's largest Spanish language newspaper said they were "disappointed with her (Clinton's) calculated opposition to driver's licenses for the undocumented, which contrasts markedly from the forceful argument in support made by Obama."
Endorsements from Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and Congressman Raul Grijalva have, no doubt, helped the Illinois senator as well. But Obama's lead in Latino Arizona, one of the centers of anti-immigrant movement in the United States, comes in no small part because his message is accompanied by more serious organizing and investments in the Latino electorate. At the same time, a more nuanced understanding of the Latino electorate as a segmented electorate makes targeted messaging more effective, especially in the younger and newly naturalized segments of the electorate. Many of these voters either don't know or could care less that my friends Dolores Huerta and former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros are backing Hillary Clinton.
Beyond the simplistic storyline of Latino unwillingness to support a black candidate, explanations of Obama's recent Latino surge must include the former failures of the black and white leaders of the Obama campaign. Sources close to the Obama camp tell me that the campaign has started shortening a Latino learning curve made steeper by, for example, an operation in which key Obama staffers charged with securing the Latino vote did not, until recently, have direct access to campaign leaders like David Axelrod.
Whether or not the Obama campaign is successful in dropping the Clinton tally among Latinos like my father, Ramon, Super Duper Tuesday will provide more than a few of the object lessons that political strategists and pundits will study long after the general election in November.