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Clinton's Latino Firewall

This column was written by John B. Judis.

Hillary Clinton was once thought to have had the Democratic nomination sewn up, but if current polls are any indication, she could conceivably lose not only the Iowa caucus, but also the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Since these states became the major test of presidential aspirations, no Democrat or Republican has ever gotten the nomination after losing all three. But even if she fails to win any of those three critical early states, Hillary Clinton still has a chance. That's because of her strength among Hispanic voters.

Hispanics will play a negligible role in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, but they will be a major factor in the Nevada caucus on January 19 and in the primaries in New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Jersey, and New York on February 5. Those states together account for 1,025 delegates; only 141 are at stake in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. And if the contest is at that point between Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, then Clinton's edge over Obama among Hispanics, as seen in opinion polls, could prove decisive.

In a poll from the Pew Hispanic Center released earlier this month, Clinton led among Latino Democrats with 59 percent, compared to 15 percent for Obama and 4 percent for John Edwards. In polls taken last week in California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas by ImpreMedia, the largest Hispanic news company in the United States, Clinton led Obama by an astounding average of 55 to six percent among Hispanic Democrats. Edwards got only 1.8 percent. Of course, even with this kind of support from Hispanics, Clinton could still lose those primaries, but it certainly gives her an edge.

There are some mundane explanations for Clinton's margin over Obama and Edwards, including Bill Clinton's popularity among Latinos and Obama's relative lack of name recognition. Clinton has also actively courted Latino voters. In May, she won the endorsement of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Afterwards, Mark Penn and Clinton's Hispanic liaison Sergio Bendixen boasted in a memo that "Clinton campaign's focus and strategy to win the Latino vote continues to grow stronger." And on December 12, the campaign launched a series of radio and television ads airing across the country in Spanish and English designed to appeal to Latino voters.

But there may be another factor in Clinton's success among Latinos, particularly with regard to Obama. And it may have less to do with enthusiasm for her candidacy than with a lack of enthusiasm for the Illinois senator. Over the last two decades, there has been evidence of growing hostility from Hispanics toward African Americans. Some of this hostility is the result of conflicts, or perceived conflicts, over politically controlled resources in cities and states. But as Tanya K. Hernandez, a professor of law at George Washington, has argued recently, it may also be a legacy of an older Latin American prejudice against blacks that has been transplanted to this country.

While this conflict passes largely unnoticed in the popular press, African American and Latino sociologists have been conducting extensive surveys in Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Philadelphia. These surveys have generally found that Latinos display more prejudice toward African Americans than African Americans do toward Latinos or than whites display toward African Americans. In the words of University of Houston sociologist Tatcho Mindiola, Jr. and two associates, "in general African Americans have more positive views of Hispanics than vice versa."

In Mindiola's surveys of racial attitudes in Houston, they asked Latino respondents to describe blacks. Some of the terms that most often came to mind were "noisy," "loud," "lazy," "dropouts/uneducated," "hostile," "complainers/whiners," "bad people," "prejudiced," "aggressive," "angry," "disrespectful/rude," and "violent." Only 54 percent of U.S.-born Latinos and 46 percent of immigrant Latinos approved of their children dating an African American. Forty-one percent of U.S.-born Latinos thought blacks had "too much power." Half thought that "most government programs that are designated for minorities favor African Americans."

Duke University's Paula McClain, working with nine other sociologists, found similar attitudes among Latinos living in Durham, North Carolina. According to McClain et al., "Latino immigrants hold negative stereotypical views of blacks and feel that they have more in common with whites than with blacks." For instance, 58.9 percent of Latino immigrants, but only 9.3 percent of whites, reported feeling that "few or almost no blacks are hard-working."

These attitudes were not confined to working-class Latinos. Yolanda Flores Niemann of Washington State University and four other sociologists discovered among Latino college students the same kind of stereotypes that Mindiola found in Houston. Among the top ten traits that Latino college students ascribed to black males were "antagonistic," "speak loudly," "muscular," "criminal," "dark skin," and "unmannerly."

This hostility of Latinos toward blacks has sometimes showed up in political behavior. While both groups -- especially if Florida's Cubans are excluded -- generally vote Democratic, there have been instances where Hispanics, faced with a black Democratic candidate, or with a white Democratic candidate closely tied to the black community, have voted Republican.

In his 1993 New York mayoral race against black Democratic incumbent David Dinkins, Republican Rudolph Giuliani received 37 percent of the Hispanic vote and only five percent of the black vote. Conflicts between Latinos and blacks also figured in the 2001 Houston mayoral runoff between black Democrat Lee Brown and Republican and Cuban-American Orlando Sanchez. Brown won the run-off, but the conservative Sanchez took 72 percent of the Latino vote.

Could hostility toward and rivalry with blacks be a factor in Obama's abysmal support among Latinos? It's hard to say, but it's certainly possible. And if it is a factor -- and not simply the result of the Obama campaign's inattention to Latino voters -- then Clinton should benefit from this vote in the primaries and caucuses in states like California even if she loses in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Finally, one other possibility is worth considering. Suppose Obama does win the nomination. Would he be hampered by Latino-black hostility in gaining the Latino vote in November 2008? Probably not, because of the Republican party's embrace of a nativist agenda that stigmatizes Latinos. But as Rudolph Giuliani or Michael Bloomberg have shown in New York mayoral contests, if in the future Republicans were to abandon their nativism and nominate centrist candidates who could court the Latino vote, they might find themselves the beneficiaries of this division.
By John B. Judis
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