Early Latino turnout could swing vote

Judging from what President Barack Obama’s campaign manager David Axelrod told me in an interview this week, early voting figures show that Latinos nationwide are turning out in larger numbers than in 2008, which is great news for Obama’s reelection bid.

But will that be enough for Obama to win the election? Before we get to that question, let’s see what Axelrod said.

Asked about the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of all likely voters — including Latinos — showing that Republican candidate Mitt Romney is leading Obama nationwide by 50 to 46 per cent of the vote, Axelrod responded that he could cite several other polls showing that Obama is leading the race.

“I believe we are ahead, and we are ahead particularly in these battleground states that are going to decide the election,” Axelrod said. “One of the reasons we are ahead is on the strength of the strong support we are getting among Latino voters, who I think are going to be decisive in this election.”

He added that “in the early votes that have been cast already in Florida, in Nevada and Colorado, Latino voters are outstripping the pace that they set four years ago. So I’m very confident that we are going to win this election.”

Axelrod’s assertion surprised me, because — while Obama is beating Romney by a whopping 70 per cent to 25 per cent among Hispanic voters nationwide, according to most polls — the surveys also show that there may be a decline in Latino enthusiasm to vote this time. I reminded Axelrod about the NBC/Telemundo/Wall Street Journal poll released last week, which shows that only 65 per cent of Latinos are motivated to vote this time, as opposed to 76 per cent in 2008.

Are you sure about these early vote figures? I asked. “Yes, what I’m telling you is that based on the early votes — millions of votes have been cast across the country — Latinos are participating at a higher percentage than they did four years ago,” Axelrod said.

Romney campaign spokesman Alberto Martinez disputed these estimates, saying that virtually all polls show Obama suffering from an enthusiasm gap among Hispanics. And regardless of whether the number of Hispanic registered voters increased in recent years, that does not mean that all will vote for Obama, he added.

The Romney campaign says that three out of four recent surveys taken in Florida show Romney winning the Hispanic vote in the state, although that’s largely because of the heavily Conservative Cuban-American vote. Even if you accept the claim that early voting shows that more Hispanics are turning out this time, that’s not necessarily good news for Obama, because many Hispanics are voting for Romney, Martinez said.

In Florida — a key swing state with a huge Hispanic population — 2.7 million people have already cast their ballots in early voting or absentee ballots. That amounts to about 30 per cent of the state’s registered voters.

According to The Miami Herald’s Naked Politics blog, 43 per cent of those who have already voted are registered Democrats, while 41 per cent are registered Republicans, and 17 per cent are independents. The early voting and absentee voting figures are not broken down by ethnic groups, but Democratic Florida state director Ashley Walker has claimed that early turnout among Hispanics is up 50 per cent from 2008.

As for absentee votes in Florida, which went for Republicans by a 16 per cent margin in 2008, Democrats have narrowed that lead to 5 per cent so far in this election, the figures show.

My opinion: It’s not clear that a high Latino turnout in early voting will translate into a big Latino turnout on Election Day, because it may respond to an Obama campaign effort to get its most motivated Hispanic activists to vote early in hopes of boosting the overall Latino enthusiasm ahead of Election Day.

But if more Democrats than in 2008 are turning out to vote early, as Axelrod says, that would be indeed be good news for Obama, if anything else because a low turnout would have allowed Romney to claim a Democratic debacle among Latino voters.

If the polls are right and Obama leads Romney by 70 to 25 per cent among Latino voters, this will be the most lopsided Hispanic vote in two decades.

If Obama wins, Latinos will have had their biggest impact ever in a presidential election. Conversely, if Romney wins, it will be seen as evidence that the Latino vote has been over-rated, and that it’s not essential to win an election. A lot will be at stake Tuesday for the future of Latinos as a bloc.

© The Miami Herald, 2012. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Media Services.

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