Hispanics relish growing electoral clout

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Published in The Australian newspaper, October 1

 JORGE Ramos has a simple explanation for the intense political spotlight being shone on the US Hispanic community. "They need us," he says, pointing out that to become president, a candidate needs about 11 million Hispanic votes.

Ramos is the charismatic frontman for Univision, the Miami-based Spanish-language television network that is now the fifth largest in the nation.

Univision, and Ramos, have become incredibly influential as the presidential candidates battle for access to Hispanic hearts and minds. Ramos is seen as the key to a huge voting bloc and in recent days has interviewed Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

"Just think about it, we have the President and Mitt Romney talking to us, and we are asking the questions in Spanish - it's something unheard of. It means that we are growing, we have a little bit more political power and that Univision ... has a lot of political clout," says Ramos, who also hosts a current affairs program, writes a syndicated column and is the author of 10 books, many about migration and politics.

Several states could turn on the Hispanic vote, including Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Florida. And while it is crucial to the outcome of this year's election, the political parties know the Hispanic vote will only grow in importance as the Latino demographic explosion continues.

"Right now if you go to any hospital in Texas or Los Angeles, half of all newborns are Latinos. Just imagine when they go to the polls," Ramos says.

"The most popular name in Texas and California used to be Michael, now it's Jose. More people eat tortilla than bagels, and more salsa than ketchup. We're changing not only the way people eat or dance but also the way people are voting."

A few key numbers help to illustrate the growing Hispanic influence. There are 51 million Hispanics in the US, about 16 per cent of the total population of about 310 million. About 21 million of them are eligible to vote.

The largest group is of those who describe themselves as being of Mexican origin: about 33 million people. They tend to be younger than other Hispanic groups, and their birthrate is very high.

For example, the 2010 census showed Texas, with a population of 25 million, to be 37 per cent Hispanic. Nearly half of all children in Texas are Hispanic.

James Henson, director of the Texas Politics project and one of the state's leading pollsters, says this demographic trend is evident across the country, but most dramatically in Texas.

"The scope and pace of it is extraordinary. This is a national phenomenon, but Texas is the exemplar," he says.

Obama received about 67 per cent of the Hispanic vote in 2008 and a recent Wall Street Journal poll suggested he has two-to-one advantage over Romney. His challenge will be to get Hispanic voters to turn out in large numbers on voting day.

During his appearance on Univision on September 19, Romney was cheered by the studio audience when he said his party was the "natural home for Hispanic Americans because this is the party of opportunity and hope".

Republicans argue that many Hispanics are anti-abortion and aspirational, and have a strong interest in small business - areas in which Republicans are strongest.

Andres Oppenheimer, an eminent commentator on Latin American affairs, says Romney is paying for the hard line he took on immigration during the toughly contested primaries.

"He said he would veto the DREAM Act, he called for self-deportation of Hispanics, and he said Arizona laws should be a model for the entire nation," Oppenheimer says.

Romney was quizzed on these issues during the Univision debate and managed to soften his rhetoric. He said he was not in favour of rounding up "12 million people and kicking them out of the country". He was cheered for this by the Florida studio audience - where more Hispanics tend to be of Cuban origin, and pro-Republican.

As the election draws near, both camps will sharpen their pitch to the Hispanic electorate. Nationally, Obama will receive the lion's share of the Hispanic vote, but there are key state contests where it will be decisive.

Romney has acknowledged his party must do more to secure the Hispanic vote. In the now infamous leaked video where he talked about the "47 per cent", Romney said that while women were open to supporting him, "we are having a much harder time with Hispanic voters, and if the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African American voting bloc has in the past, why, we're in trouble as a party and ... as a nation."

Ramos thinks this is a telling quote which speaks to both the political importance of Hispanic voters and the concerns many Americans have about their growing influence.

"What he's saying is that either they do something about Latinos right now or the country is going to go in a completely different direction," Ramos says.

"He's saying its a problem for his party, but the subtext is that he's saying: The country is going to a place that I have no idea. People are talking Spanish, they are brown, they have an accent, they eat tortillas, they listen to Shakira. Wow, this is not my country."