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Pew study sees growing power of Hispanic vote

December 6, 2007 |  4:44 pm

While most of the political world focused today on Mitt Romney's effort to defuse rumors and pitfalls posed by his Mormon faith, the Pew Hispanic Center issued a detailed survey examining a subject with much greater long-term ramifications for future campaigns. And the results are not good news for Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman and other Republican operatives who have publicly worried that their party is stiff-arming an increasingly crucial voting bloc.

The poll of 2,003 Latinos at least 18 years of age, conducted this fall, found that among those registered to vote, 57% aligned themselves with the Democratic Party, compared with 23% for the Republican Party. The 34-percentage-point advantage for the Democrats compares with a gap of just 21 points a little more than two years ago.

The report duly notes that the political clout exercised by Latinos remains markedly less than it could be. While making up roughly 15% of the U.S. population, Latinos — based on eligibility to vote and past turnout rates — will make up only about 6.5% of those who cast ballots next November, according to the study.

Still, as strategists in both parties well know, the Latino vote has the potential to help pry away from the Republicans three states — with a combined 24 electoral votes — that George W. Bush carried in 2000 and 2004: Arizona, Colorado and Nevada.

One statistic underscores how the influence wielded by Latinos will only grow — perhaps dramatically —in the next few election cycles. As of this September, the report says, more than one-third of the estimated 45.5 million Latinos living in the U.S. were under 18. Some won't be eligible to vote when they come of age because they are not citizens. But many, many are — and before long will be registered.

Amid the glad tidings for Democrats in general, the poll sounds a discouraging note ...

for one in particular. Here's that finding: "Fewer than one-in-six Latino adults surveyed are aware that one of the 2008 presidential hopefuls is Latino, and only about one-in-eight (12%) are able to name that candidate -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson."

Awareness of his ethnicity rises slightly among the registered voters surveyed, to about 17%.

At this stage in the campaign, what counts more for Richardson are strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. Surprises in either by him likely would cause Latinos nationwide to take notice. But in neither can he count on Latinos to propel his candidacy. The Pew study estimates that in both, the size of the voting-eligible Latino population barely exceeded 1% in 2006.

The report is chock full of pertinent data on the changing face of America. You can peruse all of it here.

Also today, Democrats scored a coup when a powerful Latino clergyman joined with party chairman Howard Dean to denounce the Republicans' harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration.

The Rev. Luis Cortes, a political independent who founded the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast and a visible ally of President Bush's re-election campaign in 2004, joined Dean on a conference call with reporters, including the Times Peter Wallsten, to lambaste the GOP's presidential candidates. Cortes predicted that many evangelical Latinos who backed Bush in 2004 are likely to abandon the GOP in 2008.

Cortes' remarks came on the eve of Sunday's Spanish-language debate, to be televised by Univision, among the top Republican contenders. In recent encounters, two of the leading candidates, Romney and Rudy Giuliani, have jockeyed to appear the most fervently opposed to illegal immigration.

"The harder the rhetoric becomes at this national debate the Republicans are having, the more depression we're starting to find in local communities," said Cortes, whose Philadelphia-based organization Esperanza USA has 10,000 affiliate churches.

--Don Frederick