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Democratic Candidates Woo Latino Voters

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Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are both going after California's Latino voters. They represent one in five voters in the state. One survey puts Hillary Clinton 40 percentage points above Barack Obama and some ascribe this to Latinos' racial mistrust of blacks. Cal State Fullerton political scientist Raphe Sonenshein told KPCC's Frank Stoltze that there's a lot more at play than race.

Raphe Sonenshein: There's a lot of loose talk going around about whether Latinos would vote for an African-American candidate or not. I think it's way overstated. I think the reason that Obama is not winning more Latino support, and it's evident that Hillary Clinton is doing much better than he is, are two things: From the start, I think Clinton has put forward much more of an economic oriented program than Obama has.

Now in truth, Obama has in recent weeks started to flesh out more of an economic program, but that's catch up. And one thing about the Latino community, which everybody interprets their votes as being an ethnic vote all the time, it's also a working class and middle class vote. I mean, this is a community where people talk about the minimum wage, they talk about organized labor, they talk about health care and health insurance.

Frank Stoltze: You don't think there's any racial animus, or racial suspicion?

Sonenshein: There is always racial suspicion, and I'd be the first to acknowledge that in all these communities, there's a lot of back and forth, a lot of talk, a lot of concern. However, if Barack Obama become the Democratic candidate for president, he would win the overwhelming share of Latino votes in the general election. I think there's no question about that.

And, furthermore, had Hillary Clinton not been in the race, had there not been a candidate who could, in a sense, draw on an existing set of ties, some of which were cultivated by her husband during his administration, you may be looking at a completely different framework.

Stoltze: So what are the racial dynamics of this race?

Sonenshein: If both candidates were making the same appeal, and had the same history with the Latino community, you might then ask yourself, at the margins, is there greater concern about voting for a white candidate or voting for an African-American community? To a certain degree, we have to, through polling, ask better questions than we're asking to try to get at underlying attitudes. Like, Obama can't win the nomination without making bigger inroads into the Latino community, or among white voters.

Time is short, though, and the campaign has really shifted for him, because when he started, he was in kind of a above the racial divide stance. And one of the consequences of what the Clintons did very effectively, was by talking about race, and race getting out there, it sort of shifted him in a way, to where it actually, in some ways, maybe became a little bit more difficult for him to be this supra-racial candidate, over and above the racial divide.

I also think, though, that it was probably inevitable, that with an African-American candidate who was doing so exceptionally well, that in time, the Democratic electorate would start dividing a little bit along those racial lines. And when it started, that really wasn't quite so true.

Stoltze: How important is Villaraigosa in all of this, and again, specifically, with the Latino vote? He, of course, has endorsed Hillary Clinton, and has campaigned very hard for her.

Sonenshein: I actually think his endorsement was quite a bit more important when it first happened. And I think that part of what he did was help her out here, in California, get to the position where you have to dislodge her.

So his endorsement was critically important to her, 'cause it was early. I think it's still significant other Latino leaders have endorsed Obama. He has support from different elements of labor, and she has different support from labor, so the Latino community is not being monolithic at all in this.