Can Obama Win Latino Vote?

Race didn't figure to be a front-burner issue in the 2008 presidential primary campaign. That is, until Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama verbally sparred over remarks Clinton made about Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson. Now racial issues are starting to simmer along the campaign trail, and the flames could be turned up as the pols head deeper into the Southern and Southwestern states. The candidates quickly tried to tone down any discussion of race and gender, but political analyst and author Earl Hutchinson, whose latest book, "The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House," comes out next month, suggests that race is always an issue in presidential politics, be it covert or overt, and that there's a much more significant racial subtext to the current race than many may realize.

Hutchinson, who believes the shortage of white votes for Barack Obama in Nevada is more indicative of what will happen in the fall than the support he got from whites in Iowa, cites the "Bradley Effect," the label for the alleged penchant of many white voters to lie to pollsters when they tell them that race isn't a consideration when they vote. The term derives from the 1982 election involving former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, which showed that a smaller percentage of white voters actually voted for Bradley, an African-American, than had said they planned to vote for him.

Hutchinson believes this effect is even more pronounced among Hispanics. He writes at length in his new book that the tensions in this country between blacks and Latinos are alive and well. NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno talked to Hutchinson about how those tensions could affect the Obama candidacy and the overall election. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: In your new book you look at how racial issues came into play in political races dating as far back as the 1964 election of Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act that year. What were some of your findings?
Earl Hutchinson: I found that, one way or another, racial and ethnic factors are a constant undercurrent of the American political debate. I also found that, historically, even winning African-American candidates often get little support from Latino voters. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, for example, who was elected five times, was largely ignored by the Latino vote. Lee Brown ran for mayor of Houston in 2001, and in a runoff he got less than 30 percent of the Latino vote. There is a long history here that is hard to overcome.

How do you think this will play out in the 2008 presidential election?
If you look at the Western states—California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona—there are some 1,000 delegates, and in each of these states the Latino population is in double digits. The tensions between blacks and Latinos and negative perceptions that have marred relations between these groups for so long unfortunately still resonate, and I believe there will still be reluctance among many Latinos to vote for an African-American candidate. It can be devastating for Obama and good for Hillary Clinton, especially given the fact that the Latino vote is growing and could be a much more significant factor, depending on the turnout.

In a CNN poll released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, nearly three out of four whites said they believe America is ready for a black president. Isn't that a positive sign that race is less a factor than it once was?
White voters have shown they are perhaps ready to vote for an African-American candidate. The Bradley Effect may not be as significant now. That remains to be seen. But the rules of political engagement fall apart when you talk about black and Latino candidates. I do not believe Latino voters will vote even for a candidate like Obama who is an appealing, well-financed liberal Democrat. It doesn't bode well. At the end of day I expect the Latino vote nationwide to be 60 to 65 percent for Clinton. If Obama gets 30 percent he should count his blessings.

But Obama has an aggressive Latino outreach and has lately picked up a number of significant endorsements from prominent Latino leaders, especially in California. Isn't he making inroads?
Endorsements don't mean much. Did he get the endorsement of culinary workers in Nevada? Yes, but it didn't mean anything. The leadership, the elected officials on the ground, are one thing, but getting the rank-and-file support of the members of a union is a different matter. I knew that the predominantly Hispanic culinary workers in Nevada would not support Obama.

Obama seems particularly interested in capturing younger Latino voters. Do you not think he will do well even among the younger, more educated and energized Latino electorate?
I hear that, as well, but it has yet to be determined. Don't get me wrong: he will get some Latino support, but I am talking about who will get the majority of support. Younger, better-educated Latinos I would expect will support Obama more than the older voters, but not to the extent that Obama will win a majority of Latino voters or even anything close to it.

You cite a recent poll by New America Media, a consortium of ethnic media groups in San Francisco, that suggests hostilities still exist between African-Americans and Latinos. It's a loaded question, but what are some of the causes of this allegedly lingering tension?
Competition. We're talking about two largely poor, working-class groups in a shrinking economy, unskilled and semiskilled folks rubbing shoulders in neighborhoods that are in transition, with declining social services from health care to education. When you've got competing ethnic groups at the bottom level, you're gong to have friction because of the jockeying just to preserve their niche.

What are some of the political issues on which Latino and African-American communities can come together?
Education, health care and the justice system are just a few. In this election the ethnic vote plays a crucial role in terms of the issues candidates confront. They have to talk about these issues, as well as immigration. But there is some resentment among African-Americans because of the perception that illegal Hispanic immigrants are taking jobs from black Americans. People are looking at the candidates to give them answers on these issues. This election is like no other. The voting demographics have changed radically in so many states. Much is at stake, and it will set a tone on immigration and these other issues that I've mentioned that affect these groups for years to come.

As an African-American, you've worked to bring blacks and Latinos together, at least in Los Angeles. What more can we do to cross this cultural divide?
Dialogue is essential. I've engaged Latino community activists in several areas. Hate crimes, for example, which historically have been black against white, are now being committed by Latinos against blacks and blacks against Latinos. There are an increasing number of physical confrontations between blacks and Latinos in the schools, in the jails. I've created dialogues with activists in an effort to bring down some of the misconceptions across the board, but unfortunately these dialogues are still too few and far in between.

Why is that?
Leadership. There simply is not enough leadership, which is essential for black and Latino leaders to come together. Hopefully that will start at the top with the next president. On a local level, the fight to save Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in Los Angeles is an example of the two groups coming together for a common cause. Hot-button issues like that, where you see the two groups standing together in front of the TV camera and encouraging people to unite and work together, are encouraging. But we need more community meetings, demonstrations, marches. We need to see more people of both cultures going to city council and board of supervisor meetings, to get more active politically. This is when people get to know each other; this is what makes it all more personal. And yes, all politics are personal.

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