Obama faces Super Tuesday challenge with Hispanics
By Daniel Trotta
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The perception that Hispanics won't vote for Barack Obama because he is black is a myth, and Obama trails Hillary Clinton among Latinos because she has long courted their vote and he was late to reach out, experts say.
Large numbers of Hispanic or Latino voters will head to the polls for "Super Tuesday" voting on February 5 in states such as California, New York, New Jersey, Arizona and New Mexico, where public opinion polls put Clinton ahead in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In all, Democrats vote or caucus in 22 states on the most important day for choosing the major party presidential candidates who will face off in the November 4 general election.
Latinos could make up 25 percent of the electorate in the Democratic primary in California. There are fewer Latino voters in other states but enough to tip the balance in a close race, if they come out to vote.
In the first nominating contest with large numbers of Latino voters -- the Nevada caucuses of January 19 -- Clinton won 64 percent of their vote compared to 26 percent for Obama, according to an MSNBC exit poll.
"Simply it is wrong to look at the vote in Nevada and call that an anti-Obama vote or an anti-black vote," said Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington. He cited Clinton's superior name recognition and Bill Clinton's deep popularity from his time as president, when he appointed hundreds of Latinos to federal posts.
Clinton, who would be the first woman U.S. president, also won the primary in Florida, where 12 percent of Democratic voters were Hispanic and she won them by a 2 to 1 margin over Obama. But the candidates did not campaign there because of a party dispute.
Political analysts expect Clinton to win the Hispanic vote on Super Tuesday but say Obama could win some of those states by cutting into her advantage with Latinos.
Clinton pollster Sergio Bendixen fueled controversy when he told the New Yorker magazine: "The Hispanic voter -- and I want to say this very carefully -- has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates."
Barreto and others who study Latino voting trends say Bendixen was wrong, citing numerous recent examples of black candidates winning overwhelming majorities of Latino voters in major statewide or mayoral races.
"The suggestion of black-Latino electoral polarization is greatly overstated," said Rodolfo de la Garza, a political scientist at New York's Columbia University.
The Clinton team distanced itself from Bendixen's comment.
"That's not what we believe, definitely," said Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli, director of Hispanic communications for the Clinton campaign. "If you look at the facts, Latinos are voting for Hillary and not for Senator Obama because they know her. She has a history with the Latino community."
OBAMA TIMING QUESTIONED
If Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president, comes up short with Hispanics on Super Tuesday, it may have more do with his timing, experts say.
"One of the great strategic mysteries of this incredible campaign has been the Obama campaign's late engagement in this community. Until a few weeks ago it was hard to even determine if Obama had any Hispanic effort at all," Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank NDN, wrote in an essay.
Fernando Mateo, president of the New York-based Hispanics Across America, said Hispanics in the Northeast feel ignored.
"He's been here numerous times. He hasn't reached out to us. He hasn't reached out to other Hispanic organizations and said 'I want to go eat rice and beans,"' Mateo said.
Maria Blanco of Latinos for Obama in California said volunteers have long been hard at work but that it was only natural the national Obama team had been focused on early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Obama has not scheduled any events in California other than a televised debate in Hollywood on Thursday, but has a fairly open agenda on the two days before Super Tuesday.
"I'm pushing him now to come out to areas with strong Latino populations," said Steve Westly, co-chairman of Obama's California campaign. "I have a hunch I'll be successful."
(Additional reporting by Adriana Garcia, Jeff Mason, Adam Tanner and Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Patricia Zengerle)