Voters in 22 states, including California and New York, will go to the polls next Tuesday in the biggest primary election contest of the 2008 U.S. presidential race. The outcome of many of these elections and caucuses will be shaped by Latinos. VOA's Chris Simkins reports on the impact the Hispanic vote will have in determining which candidate from the Democratic or Republican Party wins their party's presidential nomination.
Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States and make up the fastest-growing voting segment among immigrant populations in the country. That's why political observers say they will play a key role in this year's presidential contest.
Cecilia Munoz, a Public Policy Director with the National Council of La Raza in Washington D.C., says Latinos are energized by the issues and mobilizing to get out the vote. "I think part of the energy is just because this is a growing constituency and as our numbers increase our proportion of the electorate is going to increase. But there is really much more going on. We (Latinos) care deeply about the major issues of the day, questions like education, or access to health care or the war."
Both the Republican and Democratic Party candidates know the importance of the Hispanic vote. That's why they've been campaigning hard in Latino communities, especially in western states. Senator Hillary Clinton is running Spanish language campaign ads in California.
William Ramos is the Washington Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).
He says holding earlier presidential primary elections this year means the Latino electorate will have a big say in deciding the nominee from the two major political parties. "By moving forward on the primary calendar it offered Latinos -- who are large populations in the Southwest where many of the states are, and in the northeast in New York, New Jersey and the like -- an opportunity to really have a voice in these presidential primary elections and beyond in the general election."
Political analysts say, traditionally, Hispanics are swing voters, meaning they do not always throw their sole support behind one political party over the other. Since the 1980s increasing numbers of Hispanics have been voting for Republican presidential candidates. President Bush markedly increased his share of the Latino vote when he was re-elected in 2004.
But some political analysts say the immigration debate could dramatically shift Latino support away from the Republican party. They believe many Latinos are angry over the tough position on illegal immigration taken by many Republicans, including threats to deport the millions of undocumented workers in the country now.
"The tough hard-line anti-immigration position that the Republican candidates, many of them, have taken on immigration is going to be a problem with Hispanic voters," says Norman Ornstein, who is a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "That is why Senator John McCain, who is not saddled with that tough anti-immigration line, is someone who scares Democrats a little bit more. As George Bush showed, if a Republican can get 35 to 40 percent of the Hispanic vote he can win an election, an election the Democrats think is theirs and in the bag."
Some political observers estimate more than nine million Latinos could cast ballots in the general election, a 23 percent increase from 2004. They believe those numbers could increase if one million Hispanics who have applied for citizenship become naturalized and vote in the November election.