Poll: Hispanic Voters Back Obama by Wide Margins

There's no way to predict the real impact of Latinos in the 2008 race, but the campaigns are actively courting the voting bloc. In Thursday's poll by the Pew Hispanic Center, 66 percent of registered Hispanic voters say they support Democratic nominee Barack Obama while 23 percent stand behind Republican nominee John McCain. For Obama, the figures solidify the transition of Latino support from Hillary Clinton to his camp. For McCain, they suggest that making real inroads with this group may require a minor miracle. Obama not only has the support of traditionally Democratic Latinos, he also has the backing of 23 percent of Hispanics who identify themselves as Republicans and holds a significant edge among Latino independents. Those numbers have to worry the GOP in battleground states like Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida. NEWSWEEK's Jessica Ramirez spoke to Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, about some of the other voter trends in their latest report. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The 39 percent identification edge Democrats hold with Hispanics is larger than it has been at any time this decade. What do you attribute this to?
Mark Lopez:
A part of it is the debate surrounding immigration policy. A part of it is that Latinos think the Democratic Party is more in tune with the issues they care most about. Then there's also a general movement among Latinos, and really all Americans who want some sort of a change, to lean toward the Democratic Party.

More than half of the Hispanics you polled say they voted during primary season. Of those, 72 percent cast a ballot in a Democratic contest and 21 percent in a GOP contest. Are these voting trends at all an indicator of how it might go come November?
Definitely, it's a possibility. There are a couple of things that speak to this. One, a significant number of Latinos are following the election very closely, and that's important. There was also a lot of participation in the primaries on the Democratic side, and I think that was because the race went to the end and it was close. Latinos were especially supportive of a particular candidate, Hillary Clinton. So I think all of this helped to lead to a real push in participation in the primaries. While what could happen in November is uncertain, everything is in place for a good level of turnout, a high level of turnout even.

I noticed 16 percent of primary voters said they had voted for the first time. How key will new Latino voters be?
They could be very key. There's some evidence that there's been a movement among those who are noncitizens to become citizens and register to vote. There are some organizations that have been pursuing that. So it looks like they could play a role. One of the things about Latinos is that they are very young. They will always have a larger share of first-time voters just because there are so many youth.

The movement to register goes back to the immigration debate, right?
Yes, the whole point of the marches in recent times was "march today and vote tomorrow." I think we are seeing at least some of that come to fruition, but it's hard to disentangle that from the other reasons that explain participation.

Among Hispanics, Obama is favored over McCain 3 to 1 on the issues of education, jobs, immigration, health care and cost of living. He is favored 2 to 1 in the areas of Iraq and crime. How did Latinos arrive at this opinion?
We don't have enough information to tell, but Hispanics do say Obama is more attuned to the issues and concerns of the Hispanic community than McCain. I think part of the explanation is that this group tends to lean heavily Democrat, so it's not too big of a surprise that they see a Democratic candidate better positioned to solve their issues than a Republican candidate.

During the primary, some wondered if the Latino community's preference for Hillary Clinton was somehow a response to Obama's race. You found that a majority actually thinks race will either help him or not be an issue at all. Where did the original misconception come from?
I think it's a reflection of what's happened in California and other places like California where there's been some competition in politics for resources for different communities. As a result, there's been some conflict between those communities. We already had a sense in the primaries that race was not important. Among Democratic voters, it appeared that when asked, "Was race important in determining your vote in the primaries," it looked like there was virtually no difference in those people that said, "Yes, race is important," or "No, race is not important," and who they voted for in the primary. In fact, Hillary Clinton won both of those groups. That suggests that race didn't matter. Our results only confirm that.

I did notice that when the same question was asked about McCain, the results were reversed. What's going on there?
This was a surprise. It's the opposite of what everyone was talking about, and it looks like race appears to be more of an issue in determining how Latinos will vote for John McCain than for Barack Obama. Twenty-four percent of Hispanic registered voters say McCain's race will impact how they vote. Only 11 percent said that of Obama. McCain's number is more than double, but both are small numbers.

We've heard for years that this sleeping giant known as the Latino voting bloc will reshape the presidential election as we know it. What do you think? Are we actually going to see that happen this time around?
There's definitely a lot of interest by Latinos to participate in this election. So I think that there's every likelihood that this year is the year we'll see a large surge in Latino voter participation. But there are also some mixed possibilities in the sense that California and Texas, the two biggest Latino states, are probably not going to be battleground states. So what's that going to mean for voter turnout in those states? I do think in key battleground states Latinos will absolutely play a role, particularly in a place like New Mexico where they make up 32 percent of the eligible electorate.