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US Hispanic Voters Favor Obama, But Turnout Will Be Key

Hispanics compose the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the United States. They number more than 44 million people, but represent only about nine percent of the total electorate. Many Hispanic residents are not U.S. citizens and a large percentage of those who are citizens are younger than the minimum voting age. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, Texas, surveys of potential Hispanic voters indicate strong support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. But the impact of this group will be determined by the number of voters who go the polls on November 4.

In heavily Hispanic areas around Houston, the top issues include the economy, health care and immigration. Undocumented workers cannot legally vote and the few who are willing to speak to reporters express little interest in U.S. politics.

But some Hispanics who are citizens are concerned about the status of these illegal immigrants.

One young man says the most important issue is immigration reform because of the difficulties faced by undocumented workers who are part of the Latino community here.

The candidate many Hispanics favor is Barack Obama. However, most Hispanics are very religious and Obama's support for abortion rights troubles some, like this woman.

"One thing I don't like about Obama is that he is for abortion and stuff like that," she said.

But across the nation, Hispanics are supporting Obama by a nearly two-to-one margin. Republican John McCain is having a hard time selling himself with these voters in spite of his co-sponsorship of an immigration reform bill two years ago that would have offered legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers.

Part of the problem, according to University of New Mexico political scientist Gabriel Sanchez, is that McCain responded to critics within his own party by hardening his position on immigration.

"In order to get through in the Republican primaries, he had to change his stance on an issue like immigration," he said. "And, unfortunately, for those Hispanics out there who care about immigration, those folks are moving back towards the Democratic party."

But Sanchez says immigration has taken a back seat to the economy in this election and that there is no single issue that sets Hispanics apart from other voters.

"A lot of people make the assumption that Hispanic voters, nationally or here in New Mexico, vote based on ethnicity and that simply is not the case," he said. "Hispanics are like everybody else out there. They are going to take a look at the issues that are important to them at the time and try to match that up to the candidates' stances on the issues."

But one factor that has limited the impact of the Hispanic vote in past elections is that the number of Hispanics who are eligible to vote is often much higher than the number who actually turn out at the polls.

In an effort to get out the Latino vote across the country, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials has set up a non-partisan voter information hotline in Los Angeles. People from around the United States can call a special toll-free number and ask questions - in English or Spanish - about matters such as where to register, where to vote and where to get more information on the candidates.

"The goal here is to help the Latino electorate get the information they need in order to participate on election day," says Eric Wagner, the association's spokesman. He says the Hispanic vote this year will likely exceed nine percent - up from around 8.5 percent four years ago. He says the influence of Hispanic voters in this year's presidential election will be especially evident in key, closely contested states.

"We know that the Latino vote will make the difference in those swing states, particularly in the West, whether in New Mexico, Colorado, Florida," Wagner says. "We know that the Latino vote will decide the election in those key swing states that have traditionally been close, where we have seen a huge spike in the number of registered Latino voters."

Political experts are closely monitoring the impact of Hispanic voters this year, knowing that the rapid growth of the Hispanic population could increase the political influence of this ethnic group even more in future elections.