State Hispanic vote could make difference
By SERGIO BUSTOS, Gannett News Service, and MATTHEW BENSON
Save for a few key states, Hispanics could become the forgotten voters of the 2004 presidential campaign.
That's because the race to the White House has boiled down to 20 so-called battleground states, where Hispanic voters are few and far between.
Colorado, however, might be one of the few exceptions.
Colorado is among only five contested states where Hispanics represent more than 9 percent of the voters, and most polls show the race close between President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry.
The other states where Hispanics could play a vital role are Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida. White voters dominate many of the other battleground states -- the places where Bush and Kerry have spent the most resources and time campaigning.
"It's going to be a white-determined election," said Bill Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution think tank who has analyzed Hispanic voting data collected by the Census Bureau.
He found that white voters make up 86 percent of all voters in the battleground states, while Hispanic voters remain largely concentrated in states that already are considered safe bets for Bush or Kerry.
Indeed, Bush is expected to easily win his home state of Texas, which has 22 percent of the nation's Hispanic voters.
And Kerry is believed to have locked up California, New York and Illinois, which combined represent 39 percent of all Hispanic voters.
"While American politics may be on the verge of becoming Latino politics, this time around the fight for the White House is likely to play out on more traditional terms," Frey said.
That said, this year Hispanic voting numbers are expected to reach nearly 7 million nationwide, up from 5.9 million in 2000, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. In 2000, just 45 percent of eligible Hispanics voted, which was the same percentage in Colorado.
Hispanics are expected to play an important role in Colorado and the other four states. The key is to translate that potential voting bloc into significant ballots cast on Election Day, said Rich Salas, assistant director of Colorado State University's El Centro Student Services.
"We've got to get people out to vote," he said. "We can't just sit back like we have in the past."
It's not just an issue for the presidential race. Colorado has Democratic Attorney General Ken Salazar fighting to become the first Hispanic in the U.S. Senate in 27 years. He's locked in a tight contest with Republican beer magnate Pete Coors.
In the local 4th Congressional District, Democrat Stan Matsunaka also is hoping to tap the Hispanic vote. Hispanics represent 17 percent of registered voters in the district.
Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., campaigned Friday for Matsunaka as she cut Spanish-language radio ads and conducted meet-and-greets with the Hispanic community in Northern Colorado.
The hope, she said, is to stoke the voter turnout for a community whose election participation has for too long lagged behind its true size."The Hispanic vote has the potential to make the difference in Stan's race and in races across the country," Sanchez said.
Although Colorado has been drawing some presidential interest, Lydia Camarillo argued that Bush and Kerry are devoting too little attention to Hispanic voters, especially in battleground states.
"They look at the election being decided by Middle America, but Hispanics could mean the difference in all the swing (competitive) states," said Camarillo, vice president of the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. Greeley is among the places the group is focusing on as it tries to boost the Hispanic vote.
Using results of the 2000 election, she points out that Hispanic voters in the battlegrounds of Wisconsin, New Mexico and Oregon could prove decisive in 2004 -- especially for Democrats.
In 2000, former Vice President Al Gore defeated Bush by 5,708 votes in Wisconsin, where 31,000 Hispanics voted. Gore also won by 366 votes in New Mexico, where 191,000 Hispanics voted. And he was victorious in Oregon, where 33,000 Hispanic voters went to the polls. Campaign officials from both parties say no voter -- let alone Hispanic voter -- in any state is being ignored or overlooked.
"They know that there's power in numbers," Salas said. "They know that the race is so close and they can't take any group for granted."
The Bush-Cheney campaign has held fund-raisers with Hispanic groups in Arizona, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington, said Sharon Castillo, the campaign spokeswoman for Hispanic media.
"When we are holding Hispanic fund-raisers in places like Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah, I think it tells you how serious we are about reaching out to this community," Castillo said.
The campaign has "Viva Bush!" teams in 30 states and Puerto Rico and has spent more than $1.1 million on Spanish- language media advertising, she said.
"We started our campaign for Hispanic voters earlier than in 2000, and we are devoting more money to winning their support," she said.
Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli, director of Hispanic media for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, said they, too, are paying close attention to Hispanic voters in the swing states.The Democratic campaign is running Spanish-language television, radio and print ads in 10 states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington state and Oregon -- all with a small percentage of Hispanic voters.
This month, they dispatched Henry Cisneros, the former housing secretary under President Clinton, to campaign in Wisconsin. He appeared at a series of events in Milwaukee, Madison and Racine.
"He was greeted by about 500 people in Racine alone," said German Trejo, field organizer and Hispanic outreach director for Kerry-Edwards, who said Hispanic members of Congress also are scheduled to visit the state.
But Salas and Sanchez agreed the key for campaigns is to go beyond flashy slogans. In order to win the loyalty -- and votes -- of Hispanics, candidates must address their issues. That means talk about access to higher education and financial aid, high school dropout rates, jobs and unemployment.
"You have to make it real for them," Sanchez said. "You have to connect Washington to their everyday lives."