I asked Federico Peña—who served both as Bill Clinton’s Transportation and Energy secretary and is now an Obama backer—what he thought of all this. “I think it’s outrageous,” he replied. “It’s what I would expect from a Republican candidate, frankly.” Peña went on to attempt to debunk the theory that Hispanic voters won’t support a black candidate, mentioning David Dinkins (who won 73 percent of the Latino vote in 1989), Mayor Harold Washington in Chicago (80 percent), and Mayor Wellington Webb in Denver (70 percent), among others. “And you can flip it around,” Peña said. “When I ran for mayor of Denver, I got very strong African-American support.”
Peña argued that while Clinton certainly has garnered considerable support among the Hispanic leadership, Obama’s standing at the grassroots level is strong and growing. Peña cited his stance on allowing illegal immigrants to have driver’s licenses as particularly important. “When people hear that Hillary not only waffled on the issue but then came out against it, they are shocked,” Peña said. Does he believe that Clinton took that position with an eye toward the general election? “My answer is yes,” he said.
And yet, until recently, Obama had been a kind of missing person in the fight for the Hispanic vote. There was little outreach, a dearth of endorsers, no media effort to speak of. In his soaring speeches about how “there’s no such thing as false hope,” Obama would name-check the civil-rights movement but say nothing of the farm workers; he would evoke Martin Luther King but never César Chávez. For a long time, says Rosenberg, “it was hard to determine if they had a Hispanic strategy at all.”
Considering Obama’s pan-racial appeal and his message of omni-inclusion, this omission is mystifying. One theory is that he was endeavoring mightily not to let himself get pigeonholed as the Benetton candidate. But another is that Hispanic politics fell outside the comfort zone of Obama’s high command. David Axelrod, his chief strategist, is a Chicagoan through and through: For him, ethnic politics are all about black and white. David Plouffe, his campaign manager, is a Dick Gephardt guy (not many Hispanics in St. Louis); Steve Hildebrand, his field architect, earned his stripes with Tom Daschle (even fewer in South Dakota). “At bottom, ironically, it’s a very traditional white-guy campaign,” observes a Democratic strategist. “And this Hispanic thing is still very new to a lot of operatives—they just didn’t know how to do it.”
With February 5 looming, however, they had no choice but to dive in. The endorsement of Ted Kennedy—whose family name and status as the champion of liberal immigration reform are gold among Hispanics—provided the campaign with a powerful weapon to deploy. And so has a late-stage rush of estimable Latino endorsements, such as that of California congressman Xavier Becerra. Still, it’s hard to argue that this last-ditch effort puts BHO on level footing with HRC. Although Obama has taken to arguing that the contest between him and Hillary is between “the future and the past,” when it comes to fashioning a campaign in tune with the nation’s emerging demographic realities, the Clinton campaign has been far more forward-looking—even visionary.
No sensible person examining the electoral map could doubt that Hispanics may hold the key to the outcome in November. If Democrats can carry their core states plus Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, hey, they’re home—even without Ohio or Florida. (Add either one of those and you’re looking at the makings of a durable Democratic majority.) In the aftermath of the searing immigration wars of the past two years, Latinos in those states are ripe to be plucked. But now that the Republicans seem intent on nominating John McCain, that plucking won’t be automatic. And winning will require turning out both Hispanics and African-Americans in big numbers. Let’s hope that Obama finally gets the picture—and that Clinton sticks to playing Evita and doesn’t morph into Lee Atwater.