Spurred by the widespread crackdown on illegal immigration and by the strident tone of the national immigration debate, Latinos are gearing up for Tuesday’s voting with an eye toward making Hispanics a decisive voting bloc nationwide in November.
After decades of relatively low Hispanic electoral participation, last year more than a million legal Latino immigrants applied to become citizens, with many saying they had done so to be able to vote. Since then, newly naturalized Hispanic-Americans and citizens since birth have turned out at voter registration fairs and political discussion groups, and pressed relatives to register.
Last week’s primary in Florida, the first state with a big Hispanic population to vote, gave a demonstration of their potential clout. Hispanic voters, who were 12 percent of the electorate — a strong turnout for a primary — handed the decisive edge in the Republican contest to Sen. John McCain of Arizona over Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, according to exit polls by Edison/Mitofsky.
The two candidates were essentially even among white voters, with 33 percent for McCain and 34 percent for Romney. But Latino voters, including Cuban-Americans and others, favored McCain by 54 percent to 14 percent for Romney. (McCain is known among Latinos for backing an immigration bill offering legal status to illegal immigrants that was defeated last year by conservatives from his party.)
On the Democratic side, Hispanics also contributed to the 16-point victory in Florida of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York over Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, with 59 percent of Latinos voting for her and 30 percent voting for him.
Hispanics regard voting this year as a strategy of self-defense, said Sergio Bendixen, a pollster based in Miami. For many of them, Bendixen said, “the immigration debate has not been about immigration policy. It has been about whether Hispanics belong in America.”
Hispanics “feel they need to vote to show they are a group that cannot be abused or discriminated against,” said Bendixen, who surveys Hispanics for the Clinton campaign.
On Tuesday, 24 states that include nearly 60 percent of the nation’s Hispanic electorate will be voting in primaries or caucuses. Voting that day will be seven of the 10 states with the highest percentages of Hispanics among their voters, including New Mexico, where Hispanics constitute more than one-third of the electorate (Democrats will caucus there), California, where they are about 23 percent, and Arizona, where they are about 17 percent.
The electoral energy has been channeled by a voter registration campaign that has built new links between local Hispanic organizations and major Spanish-language media, led by Univision, the national television network.
Both Republican and Democratic strategists say that aggressive immigration enforcement and tough talk against illegal immigration by the Republican candidates, with the exception of McCain, have antagonized Hispanics in general.