For almost 40 years now, the white South has been moving steadily into the Republican ranks. Indeed, white Southerners now run the GOP and provide a very high proportion of its cultural shock troops. Given these facts, we believe it's past time to target the electoral map in a different way. The new path to the White House runs through the Latino Southwest, not the former Confederacy, especially for a Northern nominee. Hope blooms as a cactus flower, not a magnolia blossom.We say this although we fully agree with the recent argument made by our friends Jesse Jackson Jr. and Frank Watkins that a strategy based on economic issues is critical for uniting African-American and white voters — and, we would add, Latino voters — over the long term. There is no doubt that Southern whites have been victimized by conservative bait-and-switch tactics — losing ground on jobs, wages, healthcare and retirement security while being polarized on racial issues and diverted on cultural issues (and, of course, when Southern whites are diverted, Southern blacks pay the heaviest price). Outside Florida, though, there is very little chance that enough Southern whites can be convinced of this logic to carry any Confederate electoral votes next year.
Consider this simple point by analyst Charlie Cook in The Almanac of American Politics 2002 concerning the swing suburban vote in the 2000 election: "Importantly, Bush's scant two-point victory in suburbs this year was driven by carrying Southern suburbs by 20 points, while losing non-Southern suburbs by about 15 points." Now balance that comment against Bush pollster Matthew Dowd's revealing insight that if the Bush 2004 percentage remains the same with every ethnic group he won in 2000, then the Democrats could win by 3-million votes rather than half a million. Most of this increase would come from Latinos.
Where do these Latinos live? More to the point for the next presidential election, where do these Latinos live that makes a potential difference in the Electoral College? They live in four key states in the desert Southwest with huge and growing Latino populations. In 2004 these four states combined will cast 29 electoral votes, four more than in 2000 and more than Florida casts. And Latino voters in these four states could be united and inspired by an economic agenda that includes decent wages, retirement security, reining in corporate corruption, rebuilding public schools, labor rights and healthcare.
New Mexico was a blue state surrounded by red in 2000. The race was essentially a dead heat. New Mexico now has aggressive Latino Democratic Governor Bill Richardson, who is mobilizing hard to increase the power of the Latino vote nationwide.
Nevada, where Al Gore fell short of the White House by fewer than 22,000 votes out of more than 600,000 cast, essentially doubled its Latino share of the population in only 10 years. (In 1990, Nevada was 10.4 percent Latino; by 2000, 19.7 percent.) And since then, George W. Bush has signed off on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. Las Vegas also has a strong labor movement.
Arizona, which Bill Clinton won in 1996 and Al Gore lost by fewer than 100,000 votes (out of more than 1.5 million cast), now has a woman Democratic governor. Arizona is already one-quarter Latino, and according to the census, of the more than 325,000 people added to the state between April 2000 and July 2002 (the latest estimate), more than half (181,000) were Latinos.
Colorado is a state that Bill Clinton carried in 1992 and lost by only 20,000 votes in 1996. Although Bush won the state by nine percentage points in 2000, he carried only 51 percent of the vote, and his environmental sins combined with a growing Latino vote could make this state much closer next time.
Then there is the secret weapon — non-Cuban Latinos in Florida. The Sunshine State is now 17 percent Latino, and with each passing day the conservative Cuban-American vote loses market share while the more progressive non-Cuban-American Latino vote grows by leaps and bounds. Cuban-Americans took credit for delivering Florida to Bush in 2000, giving him 80-85 percent of their vote. Given their deep-seated hatred of Castro and their loyalty to Governor Jeb Bush, this percentage is unlikely to change much in 2004 (though young Cuban-Americans are much less fixated on Castro than their elders).
What is overlooked, though, is that non-Cuban-American Latinos voted heavily for Al Gore — actually, combined with the huge African-American turnout in 2000, Latinos won Florida for Gore! Most Cuban-Americans are already registered to vote, but thousands and thousands of non-Cuban-American Latinos are not, a fact the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project has wisely recognized.
Finally, when considering the Latino vote, reflect on this potentially empowering statistic: There are as many unregistered Latinos who are American citizens as there were Latino voters in 2000 — more than 5.5 million. These potential voters are not likely Bush voters, despite Republican rhetoric; they cry out for mobilization, for registration, for contact on issues they care about, for GOTV (get out the vote).
The 2000 election left us with a map split between blue states and red states. The conventional wisdom is that a Northern nominee, to win, will have to find a way to convert some of the old Confederate gray from red to blue. But most Southern states are burial grounds for Northern Democrats, not battlegrounds. Re-defeating George W. Bush in 2004 hinges on holding blue states on both coasts, making gains in the Midwest from West Virginia through Ohio to Missouri and adding New Hampshire — and registering and mobilizing massive numbers of Latino voters in the Southwest and Florida.
Mobilizing the fast-rising Southwestern Latino population around the same progressive economic issues that can also unite poor whites and African Americans is the ticket to ride in 2004.
Even better, given the explosive growth rates for Latinos in the Old South — not just in Texas and Florida but also in states like Georgia and North Carolina — adding these new Latino votes to the strong existing African-American base there will transform American politics.
As the Rev. Jesse Jackson often says, the hands that picked the cotton, plus the hands that picked the lettuce, are the hands that can pick the next President — for years to come.
Former New Mexican Steve Cobble, who worked with Jesse Jackson as political director for the National Rainbow Coalition, serves as strategic adviser to the Kucinich campaign. The opinions expressed here are his own.
Joe Velasquez, former White House deputy political director and longtime union organizer, directs Moving America Forward, a 527 organization dedicated to registering and mobilizing Latinos. The opinions expressed here are his own.