Central Valley

California's Hispanic voters express political voice with a record turnout

For the first time in a statewide election, Hispanics on Tuesday were as likely to vote as members of any other racial group. The outpouring was especially strong on the Democratic side, with Hispanics accounting for 30% of Tuesday's presidential primary vote.

Hispanic Democrats nearly doubled their percentage of the electorate from the 2000 and 2004 primaries. And they matched their percentage among California adults, suggesting the state's fast-growing Hispanic population finally is flexing its muscles at the polls.

Analysts cited a variety of possible reasons for the uptick in Hispanic voting, from the voter registration drives that developed from the 2006 immigration protests to excitement over the highly competitive Democratic race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Both fought hard for support in the Hispanic community.

"You can almost say this was the first major effort to bring the Latino voter to the polls in the same way that they attempt to bring all the other voters to the polls," said Mark DiCamillo, who directs the Field Poll. "I think the whole segment got aroused and turned out."

The biggest beneficiary of Hispanic voter enthusiasm was Clinton, who won 67% of the votes among Hispanics to Obama's 32%, according to an exit poll.

On the Republican side, Hispanics made up 13% of the vote, which also was a record. They were 9% in 2000 and 5% in 2004. John McCain won 39% of Tuesday's vote; Mitt Romney came in second with 27%.

Several analysts attributed much of the voters' enthusiasm to Clinton's ardent wooing of the Hispanic community.

California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres said Hispanics were enthusiastic about Clinton because of the "constant attention" she and her husband paid to California during and after his presidency.

"The feeling reminded me of the feelings for Bobby in '68," said Torres, referring to the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who won California in that year's nominating contest.

In the month leading up to the election, Clinton's campaign ran an extensive surrogate operation, using such well-known figures as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and farmworker union organizer Dolores Huerta.

Fresno resident Mary Rangel, 52, said she voted for Clinton because of her experience, her promise of universal health care and her work in the Hispanic community.

"She's the only one who came to Fresno. She's the only politician that had an interest in Fresno. ... She tends to reach more to the Hispanic community than [Obama]," Rangel said.

Rangel, who is Mexican-American, said Hispanics voted based on issues, but their choice differed among age groups. Younger Hispanics tended to vote for Obama, she said.

Fresnan Antoinette Moore, an African-American, said Clinton won the majority of the Hispanic vote in California in part because Clinton "decided to court California earlier. Obama was focused on other states," she said.

But she also believes younger Hispanics are voting different than older Hispanics. "Older Hispanics might have a problem with him being black. ... They are more set in their ways."

Mexican-American Bertha Sarabia, 51, of Madera said ethnicity didn't play a role in how she voted.

Sarabia, who voted for Clinton, said the senator from New York appealed to her because of her plan for universal health care and because she believes Clinton will help unemployed women find jobs.

"If Hillary was not running for president, I'd vote for Obama. ... I haven't heard any comments by any Hispanics on Spanish-language radio and television that are racist."

"They see [Obama] as the second candidate for president," she said.

Rey León, 35, of Fresno said Clinton had an advantage over Obama because some prominent Hispanic leaders endorsed Clinton. But León, who voted for Obama, said the senator from Illinois also attracted the support of Hispanic leaders and won the endorsement of the Mexican American Political Association, an advocacy organization founded in Fresno in 1963.

León said he believes Clinton captured the majority of Hispanic votes in California because of her long-established ties to key Hispanic leaders.

"There's an old-guard leadership which is a strong supporter of the Clintons," he said.

León, who is associate president of MAPA, said if Obama campaign workers had begun working earlier in the Hispanic community, their candidate could have won more votes. He said Obama can draw more Hispanics because of his support for comprehensive immigration reform.

"Being a son of an immigrant, he has a good perspective," León said.

Clinton won a majority of Hispanic votes in several states with high proportions of Latino voters, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

But Obama did well with Hispanic voters in his home state of Illinois, as well as in Connecticut, and he took more than 40% of Hispanic votes in Arizona, the exit poll shows.

Obama has built strong relationships, and powerful support, among Hispanics in Illinois, said David Ayón, a senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, at Loyola Marymount University.

But the nation's top-tier Hispanic political establishment has roots in the southwest, from San Antonio to Los Angeles. And there, Clinton has captured tremendous support, and that helped her turn out impressive numbers of Latino voters.

"The 'America con Clinton' campaign in California executed an outstanding 'get-out-the-vote' effort, especially in Southern California," said Sacramento Democratic strategist Sam Rodriguez.

"And that bodes well for the Democratic Party come November."

Democrats were not the only candidates to win support from the newly energized Hispanic electorate.

GOP state spokesman Hector Barajas said many Hispanic Republicans may have connected with John McCain because of his moderate position on immigration and his compelling life story as a former prisoner of war.

He said voter registration drives also had an effect.

Others said Hispanic GOP participation may only have seemed higher because of the lack of enthusiasm among white Republicans for their party's candidates.

"Maybe non-Latino Republicans stayed home," said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine. "So, the Latino share went up."