Conference examines Latino voting

February 13, 2008 2:21:50 PM PST
The 26th annual national conference of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute kicked off in Chicago Wednesday morning. And at the top of the agenda: the importance of the ever-growing Latino vote. Now that the race is razor thin between Democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, every ethnicity, especially Latinos, plays a role.

"All major parties, all major candidates are seeking the Latino vote; some more successfully than others. The important thing is that everyone is doing that," said Dr. Juan Andrade, President, USHLI.

Andrade unveiled the organization's "Almanac of Latino Politics" during a news conference Wednesday morning.

Andrade says 91 percent of registered Latino voters live in 16 states. In 1996, Bill Clinton carried 14 of those states.

"Bill Clinton won, the first Democrat to win in 20 years, because he carried the Latino vote overwhelmingly with 72 percent of the vote," Andrade said.

By comparison, Andrade says, in 2000, Al Gore carried only 10 of the 16 states and lost. And John Kerry lost in 2004, snagging only nine of those states. Latino political observers today say candidates must speak to Latino voters to win their votes and the election.

"What Latinos care most about is the economy and the war. Immigration is out there, but it's not a decisive issue," said Patricia Campos, UNITEHERE!, union leader.

They say immigration galvanized Latinos to march the streets across the country and become political active, but the majority of Latino voters, about 79 percent, speak English.

"Just because you are Latino, you are not synonymous with being undocumented. We are American. And so, it's important, yes definitely, because it was an awakening, but it's important to talk about education and the economy," said Maria Teresa Petersen, Voto Latino.

And the conference featured a roundtable discussion with African-Americans, building coalitions for the next fight in November.

"This is the primary season. The Super Bowl is in November, and New England will tell you, you can win all the season games, the Super Bowl is what really counts," said Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

While much of the discussion has been about presidential politics, on Thursday it's about the next generation. More than 3,000 students and teachers will gather for a rally, and then they'll talk about going to college.

Andrade says, historically speaking, Latinos vote Democratic in the presidential race. But if the Republican contender, Sen. John McCain, can peel away about 40 percent of the Latino vote this year, he would break apart the Latino voting bloc and likely win the presidential race.