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The upcoming U.S. presidential election may well be one of the most hotly contested in history and the Hispanic vote could play a decisive role in deciding its outcome. Aware of that fact, President George Bush, challenger John Kerry, and their respective campaign directors have spared no expense trying to reach the Hispanic community through television ads, videos, and even a few Spanish phrases at the beginning of their speeches.

Felipe Korzenny, director of Florida State University’s center for the study of Hispanic marketing communication, is certain that the Hispanic vote will be a key factor. “Clearly, Hispanics can tip the balance in such states as California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, New York, and elsewhere. That’s why both candidates are spending millions on advertisements targeted at Hispanics.” Those expenditures, already totaling $6 million, will only increase as Election Day approaches, says Korzenny.

According to Sergio Plaza Cerezo, a professor at Complutense University in Madrid, approximately seven million Hispanics will be casting ballots this year as compared to 4.9 million in 1996. At first glance, this seven million figure seems low given that 39.3 million Hispanics now live in the United States, making them the country’s largest minority. But by 2050, one out of every four Americans will be a Latino, ensuring that the Hispanic vote will be increasingly critical in the long term.

Several factors led to weak voter turnout among Hispanics eight years ago. First, most Hispanics are immigrants, so the number of naturalized citizens is low. Voter registration is an unavoidable legal requirement in any election. In addition, the per capita income of Hispanics is below the U.S. average, many Hispanics are not fluent in English, and a high percentage of young people describe themselves as lacking in political motivation.

Nevertheless, the Hispanic vote could play a decisive role. Plaza recalls that Bush won Florida’s 25 electoral votes in 2000 by a margin of only 537 votes. On that occasion, Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Bush after President Bill Clinton antagonized many of these citizens by deciding to send Elián Gonzalez, one of the Cuban “boat people,” back to Cuba.

The Battleground States

In the upcoming elections, Florida will once again be a battleground, with the Latino vote there expected to be sharply split between Democrats and Republicans. Moreover, now that Elián Gonzalez’s plight is no longer in the news, it is quite possible that “Kerry may significantly increase his share of the Hispanic vote,” says Plaza. Kerry’s goal is to obtain the 30% share of the Cuban vote that Clinton won in 1992, an attainable target given that Bush, in an effort to win over Cuba’s old guard – who arrived before 1980 – approved restrictive measures unpopular with Cubans arriving after that date. “Those people still have friends and family members on the island,” Plaza notes. Moreover, the 500,000 Puerto Ricans who live in Florida traditionally vote Democratic. In the 2000 election, Bush won only 49% of the total Hispanic vote, despite the fact that 81% of Cubans voted for Bush.

New Mexico will also be a crucial state. In the 2000 presidential election, Democrats won by a mere handful of votes. Latino roots in New Mexico go back to the sixteenth century, and charismatic governor Bill Richardson, a Hispanic, could sway the Hispanic vote in favor of the Democrats. Richardson was at one time considered a candidate for the Democratic vice-presidency.

In evaluating the impact of the Hispanic vote, Korzenny looks not only at historic data, but demographic data as well. California and Texas alone “have more than half of all Hispanics in the United States.” Nevertheless, according to Plaza, the Hispanic vote is relatively less meaningful in states with a large concentration of Hispanics because “they are not considered battleground states, and the outcome is practically decided already.” New York and California are leaning towards the Democrats, and Texas towards the Republicans. In those locations, “Hispanics don’t have any power to change the outcome.”

In some other states, including Iowa and Wisconsin, the Hispanic vote “can be very important in winning a majority if there is a strong Hispanic turnout,” even though the total Hispanic population is low there, Plaza notes. Statistical data show that about 60% of all Hispanics are Democrats. Longer term, the Hispanic population is growing fastest in the South, a trend that could tip the balance in favor of the Democrats in a few years.

Education, Immigration, Health Care and Jobs

The two candidates have devoted surprisingly little time in their debates to topics that are most compelling to Hispanics. Korzenny believes that while Hispanics have almost the same agenda as non-Hispanics, some topics are of greater interest to them, such as education. According to Plaza, a significant gap still exists between Hispanics and the rest of the U.S. population when it comes to school dropout rates and access to a college education. Yet the two candidates have practically avoided the topic of education. Although many Latinos attend public schools that are not well funded, nearly half of Hispanics favor the system of school vouchers proposed by the Republicans, which would provide them with access to higher quality private schools. In any case, “this is a very decentralized country, and the federal government has very limited capabilities,” says Korzenny.

Immigration is the most controversial topic, he adds, because “those Hispanics who vote are the more established Hispanics, and they don’t necessarily want new Hispanics to come [into the U.S.].” The Bush administration has said it intends to try and legalize the 8 and 10 million illegals that live in the U.S., many of whom are Latinos. This initiative would involve providing temporary work permits that are valid for three years and are renewable. Kerry has promised to carry out an immigration plan within the first 100 days of his administration.

Korzenny believes that “Bush has apparently found plenty of support among Hispanics for his positions.” However, according to Plaza, the Republicans’ immigration proposal “has led to distrust among some Hispanic activists.” That’s because, after the six-year period expires, no one knows what will happen. Still, Plaza suggests that Kerry’s response has been “quite vague, and not spelled out.” Ultimately, when it comes to immigration, “everything is a declaration of intentions, and it all depends on what Congress decides,” he says.

Healthcare is another key topic. Given their income level, many Hispanics find themselves in limbo between public and private insurance plans. Some Latinos even decide to go back to their homeland to arrange lower-cost care. Both candidates have presented ambitious projects, but neither promises a short-term solution. “Kerry has made a promise that is quite populist – a healthcare system financed by the tax cuts made by Bush to families with the highest income (above $200,000),” notes Plaza.

Economics is another variable that can play a key role. For Hispanics, the past year has meant improved work conditions. More jobs have been created for Hispanics than for non-Hispanics. Nevertheless, their unemployment rate remains higher than the rest of the population’s. Although a great deal of work has been created, it is directed “above all, at immigrants, most of whom have no right to vote,” notes Plaza. The economy “isn’t going poorly enough to hurt Bush, but it isn’t going well enough to provide him with an advantage.”

Relations with Latin America

Those Hispanics who have jobs that require less education might applaud the populist speech of John Edwards, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Edwards has promised “more protectionism and tax incentives that would restrain outsourcing,” notes Plaza. Nevertheless, the Democrats’ efforts to impose labor and environmental standards within the Free Trade Area of the Americas could be viewed as a step backwards in [U.S.] relations with Latin America.

To deal with that obstacle, Kerry has presented a proposal to create a Community of the Americas whose scope would not be limited to trade. “It would also provide important development assistance,” notes Plaza. When it comes to free trade, Bush appears to have an advantage over Kerry, since he managed to sign free-trade agreements with Chile and Central America. “There is a broad perception that Bush is much more in favor of free trade than his opponent,” says Korzenny. “Some Latin American leaders share that view. Lula da Silva, Brazil’s left-wing populist president, has told the media in his country that a Bush victory would help U.S. relations with the continent.

Plaza believes Bush has an important advantage when it comes time to negotiating agreements – fast-track power. This clause cedes to the President the power to ratify free-trade agreements, while giving Congress no power to amend them – an important point considering that “Congress is traditionally more protectionist than the White House,” notes Plaza. However, he warns that as a result of the September 11 attacks, the honeymoon between the Bush administration and Mexico, for example, has cooled off, and since then U.S. relations with Latin America have not progressed. Consequently, a Bush victory would not necessarily guarantee an improvement in North-South dealings.

What have the candidates done to win over Hispanic voters? They begin their speeches with a few words in Spanish. Their web sites are bilingual, and they have launched ad campaigns in the Latino media. Kerry has even created a five-minute bilingual video telling voters about the Democrats’ proposals for education, immigration and the economy. Unlike Bush, however, Kerry has not managed to tune into the minority very much and some Hispanic communications media have accused [Kerry] of not including Latinos on his electoral team, says Plaza.

Nevertheless, Kerry has an ace up his sleeve – putting Iraq in the spotlight during the debates. That could hurt Bush, according to Plaza, because all the surveys show that Hispanics are much more skeptical than the rest of the population about the Iraq invasion. However, Korzenny does not entirely share that view. While Iraq is a problem for everyone, “many U.S. soldiers are of Hispanic origin; they are mostly Mexicans. They are very proud of being soldiers. Hispanics are generally very patriotic in times of armed conflict, and Bush has become a hero to them.”