SAN FRANCISCO – When a nonpartisan Hispanic advocacy group scored Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards (search) to headline its 30th anniversary gala Friday in Los Angeles, it was just the latest sign of the rapidly growing political clout of Hispanic voters and the efforts to court them.
About 40 million strong and counting, Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States and are heavily represented in several key presidential battleground states, including Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida. And while Hispanics have been a reliable Democratic constituency in recent election years — voting in favor of the Democratic presidential candidate by a two-to-one margin or more in the last decade — Republicans have made aggressive efforts to court Hispanic voters and close that margin over time.
While the number of Hispanics has increased rapidly, voter participation has lagged. About 5.9 million Hispanic voters went to the polls in 2000; Southwest Voter Registration and Education Fund (search) and other advocacy organizations plan to bring the total number of registered Hispanic voters to 10 million this year, and send at least 7.5 million to the polls.
"We haven't had a presidential campaign since 1976 where the Latino vote hasn't set records; a culture of voting is taking hold," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of Southwest Voter, which was founded by legendary Mexican-American voting rights advocate Willie Velasquez in 1974.
To that end, Southwest Voter, which raises money from foundations and individuals but no political parties or candidates, has budgeted nearly $5 million for voter registration and turnout efforts across 20 states with particular emphasis on Western battlegrounds and Florida. It also has formed partnerships with other Hispanic advocacy groups and the NAACP to promote minority voter participation, and has launched a youth outreach program, Fuerza Latina, to register 50,000 young voters.
Meanwhile, as advocates work to increase Hispanic turnout, both parties are pouring resources into an aggressive campaign to shore up or increase their margin of Hispanic support.
President Bush won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 — substantially more than the 21 percent Bob Dole garnered in 1996 — and the Bush re-election campaign has made an aggressive push to boost that figure this time.
The campaign has Hispanic outreach groups in 30 states and has spent about $1.1 million since March on Spanish language television ads. Earlier this week, the campaign began running a major radio ad campaign in 18 states criticizing Democrat John Kerry for missing Senate votes during his presidential campaign. Last week, Bush addressed the annual convention of the League of Latin American Citizens, touting a proposal to grant temporary legal status to illegal immigrants that has stalled in Congress.
"We're in this to win a majority of the Latino vote," said Sharon Castillo, the Bush campaign's national Hispanic spokeswoman, adding that Bush is committed to bringing more minorities into the Republican Party.
While many Hispanic voters feel they haven't been treated well by the Bush administration, Gonzalez said, the Kerry campaign has lacked the record to capitalize on that.
"There has been a lot of criticism of the Kerry campaign that they aren't taking the community seriously enough, and until recently it would be hard to disagree with those criticisms," Gonzalez said.
The Kerry campaign has been scrambling to make up lost ground, with Edwards' appearance part of that. Earlier this week, Kerry announced he is spending $1 million on Spanish language campaign ads. In the meantime, several so-called 527 organizations that support Kerry have spent heavily on Spanish-language ads and are conducting Hispanic voter registration.
But Gonzalez said that to really be effective, Hispanic voter registration is best done by Hispanic advocacy organizations and others who know the community best.
"They talk a good game, but they are melting in the desert heat," Gonzalez said of the independent committees. "It's not that easy to drop into a community."